Facebook’s Innovation Chasm

on April 20, 2017
Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’m writing this column on a plane on my way home from attending Facebook’s F8 developer conference. More than any other developer conference I attend, Facebook’s is a crazy mix of near-term feature upgrades across its growing portfolio and out-there R&D work which won’t deliver real-world results for years to come. It also highlighted something of a chasm in Facebook’s innovation strategy, with its near-term focus on cloning competitors’ apps and features on the one hand, and mind-blowing research on the other. What Facebook needs, more than anything else right now, is to take the kind of thinking that’s driving its ten-year roadmap and put it on a shorter-term timeframe.

An Event of Two Halves

English soccer commentators are fond of referring to the sport as a game of two halves, meaning the two periods in the game can turn out completely differently and what happens in the first may be a poor predictor of what happens in the second. Facebook’s F8 was very much an event of two halves, with its two keynotes very different in their focus and tone.

Day 1 – Innovation by Proxy

Tuesday’s kickoff was dominated by here-and-now announcements about products Facebook and its developers are working on today. The first part was about all the ways Facebook has made cameras central to its apps in recent months and how it’s now going to evolve those cameras with an AR platform called Camera Effects. It went on to cover social VR and the Facebook Spaces app that’s launching for Oculus. It then ended with a discussion of how its Messenger Platform is evolving from last year’s somewhat misguided launch of bots.

All of this was about products consumers can use and developers can build for either today or in the very near future and much of it felt like stuff we’ve seen before, with minor tweaks. The AR platform is very reminiscent of Snapchat’s filters products, although opening it to developers rather than merely advertisers is a new twist. Facebook Spaces is an evolution of what was shown on stage at last year’s event and mimics other social VR products we’ve seen from smaller companies in the past. And Messenger’s second attempt at a platform feels a lot like some of the Asian messaging apps that have long done well in this space and, as such, is a lot less original.

It was easy, therefore, to come away from the day one keynote feeling Facebook has forgotten how to innovate, how to create truly new experiences and ideas and, ultimately, how to move its products forward without relying on features invented elsewhere. Granted, none of what was announced was bad. I think the AR features will be very popular if they live up to the concepts Facebook demoed on stage, the new version of the Messenger Platform feels much more focused and realistic in its aspirations, and Spaces is a decent proof of concept even if not yet a compelling social VR experience. Indeed, because so many of the ideas presented have been successful elsewhere, it’s easy to imagine them being that much more so with Facebook’s massive audience and network.

Day 2 – Mind-Blowing Ideas and Ambition

By contrast, then, the second day’s keynote was full of long-term thinking, massive ambition, and out-there ideas. I think the most frequent set of words mentioned by the various presenters was probably “years away” or words to that effect. Zuckerberg touched on the company’s ten-year roadmap – unveiled last year – during his slot on day one, and much of the day two stuff belongs late in the second half of that roadmap. Some of it may never even see the light of day.

But what characterized day two’s keynote announcements and discussions was their sheer difference from what’s been done before. While other big tech companies focus on evolving current user interfaces with combinations of touch, voice, and mixed reality, Facebook is dabbling in brain-computer interfaces, communication via neurons and skin sensors, rethinking communication networks, and more. If day one was all rather familiar, day two was familiar only in the sense we’ve seen some of this stuff in science fiction movies.

The creativity and imagination on display on the second day made lots of think pieces published Tuesday night and Wednesday morning about Facebook’s lack of innovation seem silly. Headlines later in the day on Wednesday gaped at Facebook’s ambitions to connect to your brain and talk through your skin. The contrast between the reactions to day one and day two is stark.

Bridging the Chasm

What we have, then, is a chasm between Facebook’s seeming inability to be imaginative in the short term and an abundance of creativity in its long-term thinking. What happens between the audaciousness of the company’s ten-year thinking and the reality of what gets released tomorrow that makes the here and now so much less interesting? Why does Facebook seem unable to innovate in such impressive ways in the short term when it’s clearly capable of that kind of imagination when freed from time constraints?

I suspect two things are going on. First, Facebook’s efforts here and now are constrained not just by time but by its current strategic and tactical priorities. Yes, it might like to do lots of things but, in the present, it’s competing with Snapchat, Twitter, Google, and others for users’ time and advertisers’ dollars and that drives certain imperatives, such as trying to win share of time back from interlopers, maximizing ad inventory, driving new revenue streams, and so on. Those prosaic short-term objectives drive tactical actions like cloning Snapchat features, pushing ads into new places across Facebook’s family of apps, and trying to tie together disparate parts of the business like social networking and VR.

But I don’t think that’s the whole problem. The other half of the problem is Facebook is now operating at such a massive scale and has had so many bad experiences in the past with big changes, it’s actually a little scared to innovate in big ways. When you have two billion users across all the countries in the world and dozens of languages, any small change is that much harder. That hasn’t stopped Facebook from shoehorning new features into the interface and I wrote recently about how Facebook has pushed some things too hard in ways that were user hostile, but those changes have again mostly been the unimaginative cloning ones rather than true innovations. Facebook seems to have lost some of its daring in moving its products forward, which is just the kind of “Day 2” thinking Jeff Bezos said he wanted to avoid in his recent Amazon shareholder letter.

What Facebook needs, then, is to allow some of the creativity and ambition that infuses its long-term R&D efforts to bleed back into its shorter-term product roadmap. To give its employees freedom to innovate in more dramatic ways and serve, not just today’s tactical priorities, but longer-term strategic ones too. And to start really inventing things here and now in real products and not just R&D projects with ten-year time horizons. Moonshots are great for burnishing a company’s innovation credentials but if that innovation is absent from the short-term product roadmap, it starts to look like the moonshot factory is not just in its own building but almost a separate entity entirely. That was the impression I was left with at the end of this year’s F8.