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What does the future hold for Facebook?

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3rd Feb 2016
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Late last year, it was really interesting to watch the reaction around the world to Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he and his wife Priscilla Chan were to give away 99% of their Facebook shares to charity during their lifetime. I saw several people questioning Zuckerberg’s desire to be the driving force behind one of the world’s most powerful companies in the long-term, while others viewed it much more cynically as an extremely expensive PR exercise to sell the world his vision.

Now the dust has settled a little, I am personally still very excited by the charity idea. I’m sure the announcement won’t have come spontaneously and of course it will have been structured in a way that considers every financial implication, but I think we should recognise a remarkable act of generosity before cynically pulling it apart. The world’s leading companies now have such power that they genuinely have the potential to change the world, so if Zuckerberg’s move to work in partnership with governments and charities inspires a few more business leaders to do the same we will hopefully see benefits of his actions around the world.

Aside from this altruistic act, Facebook is likely to encounter several other technological and social influences over the next decade, and Zuckerberg’s quest to connect the world isn’t going to be without obstacles. I spent a large part of 2015 visiting businesses on the cutting-edge of digital around the world, and based on what I saw in California and Shanghai, I believe the following mean we’re going to see plenty more from Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

An immersive experience

The world has been excited about virtual reality for decades now, but the number of practical uses in the real world is still very limited. When Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, however, they clearly had something bigger in mind than a few novelty video games.

Sharing photos was one of the features that first got people excited about Facebook and videos then became a big part of the user experience. Devices like the Oculus Rift, which will soon be available on the mass market, are seen as a way to take this already engaging media to another level.

Imagine if those football highlights your friends share could be watched as a 360 degree experience as if you were inside the stadium. It could increase engagement levels dramatically, as well as opening up some exciting opportunities for businesses to use the platform.

An even wider reach

Today, the internet has around 2 billion users. That might sound like a huge number, but two-thirds of the world’s population still isn’t online so both Facebook and Google are working on projects to change that.

When Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion, they had something bigger in mind than a few novelty video games.

Google’s Loon project aims to deliver affordable internet to everyone via a series of balloons that will beam down 4G signals to different parts of the world. Facebook are working on their own project based on a similar idea, but their approach is built around solar-powered aircrafts or drones the size of a Boeing 747 that fly for a period of up to three months again beaming down 4G signal.

Both projects are such big ideas they almost seem like science fiction, but just imagine if they succeed. Suddenly, some of the most remote countries in the world across Africa, Asia and South America will become connected to the rest of the world, creating 5 billion more internet users. Now that Google and Facebook have announced they are going to collaborate on this it seems realistic that we might see the fruits of the efforts in less than 5 years.

Such projects could have huge social, cultural and economic impacts around the world, but I am sure Facebook will also see a big boost for their profits in the long-term, as of course their app will be one of the first things these new internet users will become familiar with.

An operating system for everyday life

Most consumers in Europe are now reasonably comfortable in the digital world and the three huge internet companies that dominate that digital world in the West, Google, Amazon and Facebook, have become part of our everyday life. Interestingly, however, in Asia the digital world is dominated by three different companies – Baidu, the equivalent of Google, Alibaba which is like the Chinese Amazon, and Tencent which is the parent WeChat, a competitor to Facebook.

To look at the future of Facebook Messenger, it is interesting to look at the success WeChat is having in Asia. During a recent visit to China I was fascinated to see how many people (600million users, in fact) had completely embraced WeChat and were hardly using email as they were just doing business via WeChat.

To look at the future of Facebook Messenger, it is interesting to look at the success WeChat is having in Asia.

Interestingly, WeChat seems to have become way more advanced than Facebook Messenger and has gone beyond being a social network to become so engrained in daily life that it has almost become an operating system in the Eastern world. Rather than just simply sending messages, WeChat allows its users to make payments, manage their banking, buy lottery tickets, order a taxi, book a hotel and pretty much anything else you would do on an average day all via a user-friendly app.

Facebook has already launched payments on Facebook in the US, and rather than just being a standalone project, I believe this is step one in positioning Facebook as an operating system for everyday life. When you combine this point with the idea that the Facebook drones are going to be bringing the internet to billions more people in the near future, I am certain that, love it or hate it, Mark Zuckerberg’s internet giant is going to play a more important role in the lives of even more people for many years to come.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is author of When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at www.youtube.com/stevenvanbelleghem  or visit www.stevenvanbelleghem.com

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