Mobile, once Facebook's greatest flaw, is now the social network's greatest success thanks to its ownership of four of the world's most powerful apps.
That's not enough. Now, Facebook is working on further integrating these apps to dominate your smartphone experience — while simultaneously building for the next platform.
"For a while it didn't make sense to do multiple standalone apps," said Scott Stanchak, New York Times managing director of platform operations, "but Facebook proved that theory wrong."
The numbers for the company's standalone apps are already huge. Facebook says it attracts more than 1.79 billion people per month overall. Instagram counts 600 million users per month and Messenger has 1 billion. There is some overlap in these numbers, since users can belong to more than one app, but it's a massive user base.
Furthermore, users of these apps spend an average of 50 minutes per day across them. These figures don't include Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which pulls in another cool 1 billion users monthly. VR platforms of Oculus and Samsung Gear VR will also add to the tally. There's also Workplace, Facebook's app for business.
By tying these giants together, Facebook is looking to address one of its biggest issues — missing the boat on smartphone hardware and operating systems. While Facebook will continue to operate on the hardware and operating systems of other companies, it's consolidating an ecosystem within the larger one that users never have to leave.
In short, they're making their family of apps the next best thing.
That network is "the unfair advantage that Facebook and Amazon have. For Facebook, they've been able to establish their format and translate from the desktop to mobile," said Mike Jaconi, CEO of Button, a marketplace for mobile partnerships. "They've learned that the platform effect wins."
Losing the system, winning the game
Facebook started on desktop, but it didn't win the computer.
"Apple and Google were the operating system," Jaconi said. "It was an app-oriented battle."
When Facebook filed its paperwork to go public in 2011, it issued a major risk factor. "Increased mobile usage," the company wrote, could be detrimental since the company was not displaying ads or "commercial content" on its apps. At that point, Facebook's more than 400 million mobile users threatened its success.
Facebook's more than 400 million mobile users threatened its success.
Now, Facebook, has essentially eliminated the "major risk factor" and engulfed its business with it.
More than 90 percent of Facebook's daily active users accessed the network via mobile and more than 80 percent of its total ad revenue came from mobile, as of January last year. Sponsored posts and video ads across the Facebook app and Instagram are a normal feature.
While other companies are known to buy and shut down (Google), buy and integrate (Apple) or buy and destroy (Yahoo), Facebook has taken to buying, growing and monetizing—with some exceptions (MSQRD, an app for video filters, is still available in the app store but its selfie tech is being integrated into Messenger.)
The core Facebook app is being positioned as the portal, where Facebook users can click through to websites while messaging on groups, planning events and shopping, all within Facebook's universe.
"For me, the core Facebook app is the news feed and their objective is keeping users in that experience as long as possible," Stanchak said.
Instagram competes for that attention, however, and that's why Facebook has been testing closer navigation between the two.
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“People have told us they’d like an easier way to switch between their Facebook and Instagram apps, so we’re testing features such as the ability to navigate between those apps for people who have connected their accounts," a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable in an email.
Facebook did not shut down Instagram nor rebrand it after its acquisition. Rather, Zuckerberg let the team operate separately while keeping tabs on what worked. Five years later, Facebook's ownership is quite obvious within the app. When your Facebook account is integrated, the Instagram app suggests to invite friends from Facebook.
"Right now, Instagram is an extremely favorable brand. I see only positives for Facebook to align itself closer with it," Stanchak said.
Messenger is the clearest example of how close Facebook's apps can be. With Messenger, accessible to Facebook users at the top left corner of the Facebook app, users can access services like payments and video calling.
"The diversification is seamless between the core app and Messenger — they feel as one," Stanchak said.
Facebook's VP of messaging products David Marcus wrote, on Facebook, earlier this year that he viewed Messenger as a "virtual living room" that is also your "global directory of people and businesses."
"Nothing makes me happier than seeing that not only more of you are joining the Messenger community, but also intensifying your usage at an accelerated rate," he wrote.
As Marcus noted, Messenger users do not need a Facebook account to use it.
Snapchat, which Zuckerberg lost out on owning, is following Facebook's portal strategy. As of Snapchat's latest update, users can more easily navigate between the Snapchat app and Bitmoji app. On Tuesday, Snapchat introduced its own portal feature for accessing any website within its own app.
But there's no sign-up for Snapchat across the web or within apps, other than for Snapchat-owned Bitmoji — yet.
The next portal
Not every company is as content as Facebook with giving up on owning more of the smartphone hardware or software market. Alphabet (Google's parent company) is dominant with its Android OS, but still felt the need to try its hand once again at selling its own smartphones.
Facebook's ambitions are elsewhere. In virtual reality, Facebook sees the ideal platform for its biggest asset — social connections at a scale never seen before.
"It's closing in on 2 billion humans. That’s staggering to imagine. It's not just the scale. It continues to prove to people that it may just get bigger. It is in their DNA," said Jeff Reeves, analyst of InvestorPlace.com.
Facebook is placing its bets on owning the next hardware play: virtual reality. With his $3 billion acquisition for Oculus, Zuckerberg has called virtual reality the "next great computing platform."
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Now, with the revenue from mobile dominance, Facebook wants to own the future in virtual reality and in artificial intelligence and voice. That doesn't come cheap. Like Google, Facebook may have to get used to making costly bets that sometimes don't pan out.
Reeves says that's just fine with Zuckerberg.
"Facebook is still a very young company," Reeves said. "He’s trying to think about AI and the future."