What I’m Looking For at Facebook’s F8
It’s that time of year again when the big developer events start. With Twitter having ended its developer events, we’re left with Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple as the big four consumer-centric developer conferences. Next week, the season kicks off with Facebook’s F8. Facebook’s past events have been a fascinating mix of short-term developer-centric announcements and bigger pronouncements on Facebook’s future roadmap, so they’re generally pretty interesting affairs. Making predictions about these things is always a risky business so I’m going to share what I’m looking for next week, rather than making firm predictions about what we’ll actually see.
An Update on Bot Strategy
One of the big themes out of both Microsoft’s and Facebook’s developer events last year was bots, which went through a hype cycle right around the time of their events. A year later, we’ve seen interesting developments on both sides, with Microsoft mostly focusing on enabling third parties but also dabbling in several of its own AI chatbots, including in emerging markets like India and China. By contrast, Facebook has largely had to walk back its bot strategy from last year, conceding (in a series of moves) that its original conception was off the mark.
In September of last year, Facebook adjusted its bot strategy for the first time, with David Marcus announcing Facebook was investing in new capabilities and doing more to help developers create successful experiences with bots. Part of that announcement was an acknowledgement that the original vision for bots as broad-based replacements for apps was misguided and it needed to be narrower. Since then, we’ve seen the M assistant (which Facebook first envisaged as a sort of assistant bot within Messenger) become something narrower: a helpful tool that pipes up within conversations, becoming less like a bot in the process. In March, we saw Facebook do more to focus on menus and other user interface elements, again making their bots less bot-like and more app-like (and actually more like the messaging-based apps so popular in Asia).
I would expect the revised bot strategy to be a theme at Facebook, with announcements around group chatbots so developers can integrate their bots into conversations between real people along the same lines as M. But we also need to see clarity on the role Facebook now sees bots playing in the broader landscape of the web, Facebook pages, interaction with humans through Messenger, and dedicated apps. We need to see more realism about what bots can really be good at and which developers should be focusing on them. That focus was missing in last year’s more grandiose vision.
More Creative Ad Products
As a user, I don’t necessarily want to see more ads in more places on Facebook but as it’s facing saturating ad load in the core product, Facebook needs to be more creative about where ads can go next without destroying the user experience. One area I expect we’ll see some announcements is its Camera Effects feature, which is fairly limited for now but could easily be opened up to developers along the lines of Snapchat’s Sponsored Filters. That should be interesting and will provide new ad opportunities but I’d love to see more creative ideas from Facebook which don’t feel like they’re just being cloned from Snapchat.
Social and VR Coming Together
When Facebook bought Oculus, it acquired a largely gaming-focused VR outfit and it has continued down that path with the products released since. But the vision it outlined at the time saw VR as not just a gaming platform but the next user interface for much more. At last year’s F8, we saw some proofs of concept around social experiences in VR, through which people could virtually visit a faraway place with a friend in virtual reality. That starts to get at a vision for VR which is more aligned with Facebook’s core value proposition of connecting people. I’d love to see them iterate on that vision and start to productize some social VR experiences this year.
Monetizing Messenger and WhatsApp
Again, given the ad load issue in the core Facebook product, the company needs to be leaning more heavily on its other apps to drive growth. While Instagram has already become a massive revenue generator (though the company continues to keep the numbers to itself), the same can’t be said for Messenger and WhatsApp. It’s increasingly clear that ads are the business model Facebook will pursue to monetize Messenger (and we’ve seen the first examples of that) but it’s less clear how it will monetize WhatsApp, whose founder has always pooh-poohed ads as a business model.
The vision Facebook outlined for monetizing these messaging platforms last year was around businesses connecting with people, which obviously aligns, to some extent, with the bot strategy. So far, the ad products have been a little bland and verging on the invasive. Messaging is a uniquely personal and private space relative to the noisy commons of Facebook’s News Feed, so it needs to be careful in how it approaches advertising and monetization on these two platforms. With both now having over 1.2 billion users and therefore, twice the size of the last audience number we have for Instagram, they could be generating significant revenue at this point but aren’t. It would be great to hear more about how that will change without ruining the user experience.
The last area I’m really curious about is hardware, where Facebook now has a dedicated team under former Googler Regina Dugan. Her focus – and that of the team she leads – has always been cutting edge innovation of the kind that doesn’t necessarily make it into products. I expect that’s where we’ll continue to see the bulk of the hardware effort at Facebook heading. But I think we could easily see some examples of those projects at F8 and I’d love to see both why Facebook is pursuing some of these areas which seem disconnected from its core business and how it will make those efforts pay off over time. We could see licensing models or partnerships and, in some cases, we may even see Facebook go beyond its current small-scale dabbling in hardware through Oculus into something more mainstream and scalable.