As Facebook has matured into a social media platform unrivaled in size and reach in recent years, the persistent question hanging over the company in 2014 has been: what's next?
To properly answer that question it's best to look into the company's recent past to glean a hint at what might be in store for Facebook in 2015.
Earlier this year, Facebook recovered from its stinging rebuke from Snapchat by snapping up the messaging app WhatsApp for $16 billion in February. The app, which currently claims to have 600 million active monthly users, added a significant amount of heft to the company's already massive billion-user base. Nevertheless, the acquisition hasn't appeared to put a dent in Snapchat's popularity.
In yet another strategic answer to Snapchat's decision to turn down Facebook's $3 billion offer, the company launched Slingshot, Facebook's own ephemeral messaging app. Not long after, the company also added a feature to Instagram called Bolt, a feature initially limited to a few countries that allows users to send messages that are temporary and will disappear when swiped away.
The jury is still out as to whether either of either of the two aforementioned apps will gain any real traction, but so far Snapchat appears to be unaffected by Facebook's new alternatives. According to one study, Snapchat remains the preferred ephemeral messaging app among college-age users, and it's now valued at more than $10 billion. And, as of this writing, the company was reportingly seeking new funding that would value it at around $12 billion.
What is immediately clear, based on Facebook's most recent moves, is that it doesn’t plan on simply surrender the ephemeral messaging space to Snapchat and will likely continue experimenting in 2015 until it hits on an app the public finally embraces.
When Facebook acquired virtual reality headset makers Oculus Rift for $2 billion, the move shocked may industry observers who had previously viewed the Kickstarter-launched device as a mere curiosity, with no firm mainstream market potential. Facebook's $2 billion bet changed all that, essentially legitimizing the virtual reality space for many, despite the fact that the vast majority of the public has never even tried any kind of virtual reality system.
During Facebook's October earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about the Oculus device, explaining that the acquisition was a long play, not one with immediate market potential.
"[W]ith Oculus we’re making a long-term bet on the future of computing," said Zuckerberg, during the call. "Every 10-15 years a new major computing platform arrives, and we think virtual and augmented reality are important parts of this upcoming next platform.
"[T]he strategy for Oculus is to help accelerate their growth.[The Oculus Rift] needs to reach a very large scale, 50 million units to 100 million units before it will really be a very meaningful thing as a computing platform. So I do think it's going to take a bunch of years to get there."
But look closer, and some of the meaning of the Oculus acquisition reveals itself in the actions surrounding the device that could serve to help Facebook build stronger ties with the developer community.
September's Oculus Connect developer's conference in Hollywood, California, likely did more to improve Facebook's credibility and brand attractiveness within the developer community than perhaps anything it's done in years.
And while building good will and mind share in the developer community won't immediately translate into profits, and immersive VR chats on Facebook with your high school buddies aren't likely to arrive in 2015, some of the ideas to emerge from the annual Oculus conference might deliver Facebook its next hit.
Drones for Internet access
If Facebook observers thought the Oculus acquisition was an odd bet on the future of mainstream computing, they were likely even more surprised when the company acquired UK solar-powered drone maker Ascenta.
But in the case of Ascenta, the reasoning behind the acquisition has far more concrete, albeit ambitious underpinnings. Facebook highlighted the acquisition on its Internet.org site as part of its Connectivity Lab as a tool to help it deliver wireless Internet access to underserved parts of the world, such as Africa.
"Today we are also bringing on key members of the team from Ascenta, a small UK-based company whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, which became the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft," said Zuckerberg in a statement on Facebook in March. "They will join our team working on connectivity aircraft."
Facebook Connectivity Lab engineering director Yael Maguire says that the group hopes to get the Internet connectivity drones in the air by 2015. That's the timeline, but the actual execution of those ambitious plans remains to be seen.
Of course, Facebook will likely drop a few more unrelated surprises next year, likely in the way of mobile apps, news feed innovations and possibly going even deeper into search, but for now 2015 looks a year of experimentation and long-term planning for the world's largest social network.
Tags: 2015, APPS, APPS AND SOFTWARE, DEV & DESIGN, DRONES, Facebook, GADGETS, MESSAGING, MOBILE, OCULUS, OCULUS RIFT, SOFTWARE, Tech, VIRTUAL REALITY