Social media giant Facebook (FB) recent acquisitions and projects are indicators of the company’s vision for its own, and ultimately the world’s future.
Facebook made a number of small acquisitions since 2005, mostly as it absorbed talent and technology, but the purchase of Instagram in April 2012 was different, since Instagram continues to operate as a stand-alone service. Facebook bought the social photo-sharing service for $1 billion in cash and stock. At the time of the purchase, Instagram had 100 million active users, growing from one million in December 2010. The name is a portmanteau of “instant camera” and “telegram.” In February 2011, Instagram was valued at $25 million in a deal that included funding from the likes of Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter (TWTR). By cashing out to Facebook, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom got $400 million. Recently, Instagram surpassed 200 million users.
Lately, reports have been surfacing that Facebook is losing ground with teenagers. As young consumers flocked to messaging apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp, Facebook made another big purchase that closed earlier this year.
WhatsApp was the first messaging application that allowed people to send messages between different phones and countries for free, using only a cell phone number. It is the prevalent messaging app in Spain and Hong Kong. Facebook bought it for $4 billion in cash, $12 billion in Facebook shares and $3 billion in restricted stock units for WhatsApp founders and employees, who will end up owning about 8% of Facebook. Co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton both worked at YAHOO! (YHOO). They also both applied to work at Facebook and neither received an offer. Koum will now work for Facebook in a new capacity - on the board of directors. WhatsApp had 450 million monthly active users at the time of the acquisition, with about 70% active on any given day at the time of the deal’s announcement.
WhatsApp continues to operate independently, and Facebook hopes it hits 1 billion users fairly soon. (Facebook already has more than a billion users, itself.) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that the Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp serve different functions. With the former more of an informal e-mail service, and the latter as an app that evolved to replace Short Message Service (SMS).
Facebook’s most recent acquisition was of Oculus VR for $2 billion. Oculus’ first product, still under development, is the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted display for immersive virtual reality. The product is expected to be introduced in less than twelve months. Potential applications of the technology include doctor consultations, shopping in a virtual store, or studying in a classroom. However, the main development force behind the community is currently the gaming community. Zuckerberg believes the trend in social media is from sharing moments to sharing experiences. Facebook’s focus has traditionally been on social networking services and, more recently, mobile. Zuckerberg describes the acquisition of the Oculus platform as a long-term bet on the future of computing.
It is worth mentioning a few other initiatives that Facebook is spearheading that underline its vision for the future. Last summer, FB partnered with several other technology leaders, including mobile companies like Ericsson (ERIC), Samsung and Nokia (NOK), and wireless tech companies such as Qualcomm (QCOM), MediaTek, and Opera Software launched Internet.org. This not-for-profit organization focuses on promoting Internet access worldwide. Only a third of the global population currently has Internet access. The advantages of global connectivity and knowledge provided by the World Wide Web are great, but beyond the public good, the tech partners would have a vested interest in greater Internet use. Similarly, Google (GOOG) has established its own effort to cast the ‘net wider.
Facebook also recently hired Yann LeCun, a New York University professor, to spearhead the company’s artificial intelligence project. (Google may have done Facebook one better by hiring science fiction writer Ray Kurzweil, who at dinner parties professes that he believes that artificial consciousness is possible in the not too distant future.)
Meanwhile, Facebook stock, after a shaky several months of trading below its 2012 IPO price, bounced back with a vengeance starting in late 2013, along with the broader market, to the surprise of Facebook naysayers. Only recently has the equity experienced some cracks in its armor, falling about 20% from its peak earlier this year, along with a number of other technology stocks with remarkably high valuations.
Part of Facebook’s mission is making the world more connected and it is certainly doing that. How much of the human experience will be related to Facebook in the coming years is an open question.
At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.