Mobile Is From Mars, Facebook Is From Venus, And WhatsApp Is Ephemeral
You can only admire Mark Zuckerberg. If the game is Whack-A-mole he is prepared to whack them, small, medium or large — no matter the cost.
Whacking moles is the only way to earn points and points translate into life.
Think about it. Would you give up 20 percent of your worth and 35 percent of your cash if you got to live on in the face of an otherwise certain demise. Of course you would! By this criteria Facebook is brave, bold and right. And it definitely didn’t overpay. Bravo, Facebook (really!).
It’s Still Act I
But we have seen this coming, and it doesn’t end here. This is Act I, Scene 3 of a multi-act drama. Let’s recall the previous scenes. I have written about them on TechCrunch.
Facebook Isn’t Facebook Anymore
Facebook has, through this acquisition, made the transformation from a web-based social network into a production studio and holding company for a portfolio of in-house productions like Paper and Messenger, combined with some outsourced efforts like Instagram and WhatsApp. When Facebook launched Facebook Home, it tried to change mobile into a Facebook world. But Facebook has not changed mobile. Mobile has changed Facebook.
Facebook has become the mobile-era equivalent of New Line Cinema or Electronic Arts. Like them, it has to now focus on audience and because of that, distribution. This is a new game. It is not the same as having a centralized social network with a captive audience. It involves the continuous production of hits, similar to HBO and Netflix. And for those it has to acquire, it turns the Facebook executives into players of whack-a-mole. Facebook is no longer a technology platform. It’s a studio.
Just Another App Studio, Needing Distribution
As a mobile studio, Facebook is just a developer with apps. It is dependent on the owner of the operating system and the device for distribution — just as companies in the heyday of Microsoft were dependent on the OS and device. Distribution deals were cut to get your “App” on the desktop. Microsoft might suddenly put a feature in the OS and kill the need for it in an app. Now Apple and Google sit in that position.
For Facebook, Apple and Google represent its “Microsoft.” iMessage and Hangouts are already large competitors to WhatsApp and Messenger. Photos are the captive of the OS via Google+ on Android and PhotoStream on iOS. Survival is about innovating where the platform owners will not go — at least any time soon. Facebook has no track record of success in this world and will need to out-innovate both startups and the OS owners in order to prosper.
To be clear, this was predictable and inevitable. The only other possible outcome was the Yahooization of Facebook — a company washed up on the shore as the tide goes out on the old era. This is the right thing for Facebook to do for its future and its investors.
Users Don’t Care Who Wins
But unlike Investors, Facebook’s users don’t care whether it wins and survives or fails and dies. This is the other new element of Act I, Scene III. Users are truly in control on mobile. They adopt applications simply because they like them. This can be based on a social truth — their friends use them — or a feature they love, as with Snapchat and, earlier, Instagram. Users really care about features and friends. But they no longer need a holistic social ecosystem to provide them.
The phone itself, and the apps it contains, are sufficient to deliver on those needs. A disappearing photo message today, an anonymous secrets app the next, and who knows what tomorrow. Mobile is not a place with a solid floor under the feet of an app studio any more than the movie-going audience are loyal to a specific studio.
So What Is An Entrepreneur To Do?
Mark Zuckerberg and his team are doing an excellent job, but in the long run they cannot win because, just like a Snapchat message, apps themselves are ephemeral. Which Windows apps from the days of Windows 3.1 still dominate the platform?
Even platforms are somewhat ephemeral, as the emergence of wearables and context reveal. The pace of change is faster than at any time in history and the scale of the potential audience for the “new” is unparalleled. Entreprenuer’s should applaud Facebook’s instincts and execution and build the things that will make its attempts at survival difficult. They will be richly rewarded. The bigger they think, and the longer-term the implications of their inventions, the more threatening they will be, and of course more valuable.
It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.
Originally published at techcrunch.com on February 23, 2014.