Facebook Workers Ditch iPhones in Push for World Conquest
Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, is forcing an untold number of Facebook employees to drop their iPhones for Android phones.
“I am mandating a switch of a whole bunch of my team over to Android, just because people, when left up to their own devices, will often prefer an iPhone,” Cox said yesterday during a briefing with an unusually large collection of reporters, many at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and many others watching via online video from locations in other parts of the world. No, Facebook has not developed some sort of vendetta against Apple. Nor is it compelled to suddenly endorse the products of arch-rival Google. This is a practical decision.
To keep growing, Facebook needs to figure out how to make itself accessible to as much of the world as possible.
Though the iPhone may be the preferred device in Silicon Valley, Facebook now serves over 1.5 billion people across the globe, and a vast swath of these people—especially newer users in emerging markets—use the social network on Android phones. As Facebook seeks to reach ever more people around the world, Cox says, he wants a good portion of his team on the world’s most popular mobile platform “so that they can be reporting bugs and living in the same experience that most Facebook users experience today.” Make no mistake: his team isn’t small. He’s the company’s chief product officer.
Cox’s words were just a brief part of the carefully orchestrated and rather expansive presentation the company delivered to all those gathered reporters—a presentation designed to explain Facebook’s commitment to emerging markets. But perhaps more than the PowerPoint slides and the videos and the prepackaged statements unloaded during the presentation, the Android directive shows just how important these markets have become to the future of Facebook. To keep growing, after reaching so many of today’s Internet users, Facebook must get its social network into the hands of all the people who are only just coming online—or have yet to come online. And to do that, it must understand how things work far from the bubble that is Silicon Valley.
Yes, Facebook must keep growing. It’s now a public company, obligated to deliver returns for its shareholders. It must not only expand well beyond its 1.5 billion users, but also find ways of delivering advertisements to all those souls. It must reckon with the realities of emerging markets, where Internet connections are slow and unreliable and phones are often considerably less powerful than those commonly used in the US. That’s why, in front of all those reporters, the company also unveiled a new video-but-not-quite-video advertising format designed specifically for mobile technology in places like India.
And that’s merely the latest push. Earlier this week, Facebook told the press it had created what it calls “2G Tuesdays.” Every Tuesday, when they arrive at Facebook’s Disneyland-like headquarters and open their own Facebook apps, employees will see a message asking if they’d like their app to behave as if was on the rather slow 2G connections that drive the Internet in other parts of the world. If they say “yes,” it’ll behave like that for the next hour, so they can, on some level, understand what they must deliver to users in far off lands.
It’s not just that Facebook is creating things like 2G Tuesdays. It’s that the company is so forcefully telling the press that it’s creating things like 2G Tuesdays. This is not to say that Facebook is less-than-genuinely interested in serving the developing world. Thanks to a tiny team inside Facebook that sprung up, rather organically, to better serve the developing world as well as people with disabilities, the company has been moving in this direction for a while—and quite earnestly. But the recent press push—not to mention CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s many turns on the world stage—reveal an addeded interest in the developing world as the future of Facebook’s revenues.
The World, Basically
This is true at companies beyond Facebook. Google is also pushing harder into India and similar markets. Like Facebook, it’s building an intriguing array of flying hardware that can deliver Internet access to all those parts of the world that don’t already have it. And, five years after pulling out of China—amid some PR fanfare not unlike the PR fanfare that swirled around Facebook’s announcement yestetday—Google is apparently considering a move back into China. At companies like this, economic forces are not small.
And, so, Zuckerberg is eying China too. The difference is that Facebook is almost completely blocked in China. From where the Chinese government is sitting, a social network like Facebook is a way of spreading dissent. (Twitter is blocked, too.) Yet, last week, Zuckerberg was at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he delivered a half hour talk in Mandarin. Yes, his wife, Priscilla Chan, comes from a Chinese-American family that speaks Mandarin at home. But he’s interested in far more than just his in-laws.
Facebook wants the rest of the world. The question is: does the rest of the world want Facebook?
Nowhere is this better illustrated than through Free Basics by Facebook—née the Internet.org app—the company’s effort to bring free Internet access to so many developing countries. Free is good. And in many ways, Facebook should be applauded for the program. But as Zuckerberg has said, this is not mere philanthropy. It’s a way of introducing Facebook to people who are just coming online. That’s why the company has insisted that its own app be part of the free access—and it’s why the company has received criticism from Indian publishers—not to mention activists—who believe the program undermines the idea of net neutrality, restricting opportunities for other services.
Facebook wants the rest of the world. The question is: does the rest of the world want Facebook? The answer isn’t clear. A recent New York Times story highlighted the apathy that surrounds the Free Basics app in India. That’s why the company is pushing its rest-of-the-world agenda so hard. The obstacles are enormous. First, the rest of the world must come online, and then it must choose Facebook over some other fundamental means of communication. In China, that’s not going to happen, even if the Facebook ban is lifted. The Chinese market prefers homegrown stuff, for many reasons. And in other parts of the world, because the market is still, well, developing, the alternatives are myriad.
One of the most popular alternatives is WhatsApp, the lightweight messaging app that’s already used by more than 900 million people, mostly in Europe and the developing world. And it so happens that Facebook owns WhatsApp. It paid $22 billion for the thing. That’s a high price to pay for world conquest. Maybe even higher than having to ditch your iPhone for an Android.
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