Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is on a quest to kill the smartphone. Apple and Google beat the billionaire social media magnate to creating the smartphone — the dominant platform underpinning the Facebook network.
When Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004, we didn’t have Android or iOS, but the mobile phone market was well established — think Blackberry, Motorola, and Nokia.
“Because of that, Facebook hasn’t really been involved in designing the operating systems and phones. Companies like Google and Apple have done that instead. And that in some cases meant we haven’t been able to design the experiences that we hoped to deliver for our community,” Zuckerberg said during a recent court case between game maker ZeniMax and Oculus, the virtual reality (VR) startup Facebook bought for $2 billion in 2014.
Facebook has built its $450 billion business upon smartphone platforms that are largely owned by Apple and Google — more than half of its users will only sign in from a mobile device. That uncomfortable truth is why Facebook is staking its future on VR and augmented reality (AR) — tech which overlays digital imagery onto the real world.
At the company’s annual developer conference in April this year, Zuckerberg unveiled the Camera Effects Platform, which lets outside developers create AR effects for the Facebook app’s camera, such as sharks swimming in the milk of a bowl of cereal. That would, in theory, allow Facebook to host the next app craze, like the AR game Pokémon Go. But Zuckerberg’s ambition is much wider.
At the conference, he envisioned a pair of Facebook-powered smart glasses that could display information on the objects we look at, such as the cost of a bottle of wine. “Think about how many of the things around us [that] don’t actually need to be physical,” Zuckerberg said in a recent interview. “Instead of a $500 TV sitting in front of us, what’s to keep us from one day having it be a $1 app?”
Facebook’s AR push could be prompted by growing competition for user attention, which keeps the advertising dollars flowing. Just hours before Facebook’s developer conference, Snapchat announced a major VR initiative: 3D lenses for use inside its messaging app. Snapchat also has Spectacles, glasses for consumers to record video from. It could also be prompted by a desire to not miss out on the next big tech surge after smartphones.
That is why Facebook has ploughed billions into VR through Oculus, maker of the Rift headset, and why Facebook is building its own AR hardware.
If his bearish bets pay off, Facebook could create the next major app ecosystem, like Apple’s App Store, which helps ensure consumers keep buying Apple’s smartphones and tablets each year. Facebook could control the platform upon which future AR hardware is built, although the company will face fierce competition from others who are trying to make AR a reality.
Microsoft has invested aggressively in the technology: it unveiled its HoloLens AR headset two years ago. Alex Kipman, head of HoloLens, said recently that the demise of the smartphone was a “natural conclusion” of AR and similar technologies. But there have been plenty of AR flops so far — Google’s hyped attempt to create digital specs, known as Google Glass, being the most spectacular failure.
Facebook, too, has plenty of failed innovations consigned to the trash can. In 2012, the company created the App Center, a hub on its social network for consumers to discover apps created by third parties and play them directly on the Facebook desktop website. As consumers transitioned to smartphones, the App Centre fizzled out.
A year later, Facebook tried again to take on Apple and Google, this time with a branded smartphone, called Facebook Home. In an embarrassing misstep for the company, the devices were eventually abandoned, after selling poorly.
It may seem, then, that Facebook’s gamble on AR is a risky one, given that widespread consumer adoption of AR could be several years away. However, the real threat to Zuckerberg’s empire is that, if it doesn’t get ahead of the current tech wave, it risks missing the chance to be the first to create the leading AR platform, just like it did with the smartphone. Surf’s up.