An estimated 1,500 developers gathered last week at F8, Facebook's first conference in almost three years, to learn about the latest updates to social network's platform. The atmosphere throughout the event was that of a very grown-up and increasingly serious business.
SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook had all the appearances and gusto of a grown-up company at F8 last week, its first developer’s conference in almost three years. The company’s rising sophistication was on display throughout the event, but it was even more abundant as founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered his opening keynote.
The sentiment sounds overly simple and altruistic, but it’s also a far cry from much of the way Facebook was built, designed and operated over the past decade. It’s not like Facebook didn’t care about its users or developers before. It certainly couldn’t have become a platform with 1.2 billion active users if that were the case. It’s just that today’s Facebook is becoming much more serious and business-like in its endeavors.
“We used to have this famous mantra. Move fast and break things,” says Zuckerberg. Those days are mostly gone though, taking some of the thrill and unexpectedness out of Facebook’s sails with it.
Facebook’s New Rallying Cry
“Now what we do is focus on building the best tools and infrastructure in the industry,” he says. Zuckerberg even went so far as to suggest a new rallying cry that tries to stay hip while hitting all the notes one would expect to hear from such a uniquely empowered company. “Move fast with stable infra” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s how Facebook operates now.
That new theme may not be the best calling card for developers who like to break things before building something even better to put it in its place, but stable infrastructure is important to developers who make their living off Facebook’s platform. Compared to the sometimes abrupt and more controversial changes introduced in the past, Facebook’s gentler approach somehow exemplifies all the experience and struggles of a young startup that is now the largest media channel to ever exist.
Breaking things just doesn’t work for a company that now handles 470 billion API calls a day, a 20-times increase over the last three years. That smash-it-up mentality was ceremoniously supplanted at F8 by more serious developer needs like a promise to keep all APIs stable and operational for at least two years and a new service level agreement wherein Facebook commits to fix all major bugs within 48 hours.
“The best way we can help you improve people’s lives and improve the world is provide you with a stable mobile platform,” says Zuckerberg.
Users appreciate stability too, but that isn’t what creates the emotional connections that make Facebook such an important part of so many people’s lives. It only makes those connections possible and lasting.
Login Gains Privacy Controls and Anonymity
Changes to Facebook’s login product are where the needs and wants of users are most visibly outweighing those of developers.
Now when users click on the “log in with Facebook” button, they’ll be able to select one-by-one whether that app can have access to their public profile, friend list, email address, birthday, likes, and the permission to post to their account.
“People want more control over how they share information, especially in how they use their apps,” Zuckerberg says. “We know some people are scared of pressing this blue button& We don’t ever want anyone to be surprised about how they’re sharing on Facebook.”
With relatively few changes being made to the look and feel of Facebook overall, the most surprising development is the new “log in anonymously” product. Just like it sounds, users can simply anonymously log in to new mobile apps without sharing any of their Facebook data with the developer.
Not everyone was cheering the move at F8 though. In the halls developers voiced their concerns about the potential data vacuum that anonymous login could create, thereby limiting their ability to build valuable databases of their users.
Solidifying Power in Incremental Steps
“It’s a win for Facebook but not really a win for anybody else. Facebook didn’t say that they’re going to not collect your data if want to login,” Seth Shafer, research analyst at SNL Kagan tells CIO.com. “They’re going to collect your data, they’re still going to use it and target you. It’s just possible that it might mean less data for developers on their side of things. It’s really hard to see how that’s a step forward.”
Shafer and others understand Facebook’s assertion that users are less comfortable sharing information with mobile apps when they’re trying to get over the initial hurdle. “Some people don’t want to log in and use their actual credentials and share data until they’ve kicked the tires on it,” he says.
“You could make that argument that in the broader scheme developers lose some data on users but then they gain more engagement, more usage, more downloads when people are more willing to try it out,” says Shafer. “I didn’t think they were being overly generous by saying ‘look we respect privacy, here it is.’ Well kind of, sort of.”
Still, these changes appear to incremental and small enough to avoid the backlash that usually followed every Facebook update in the past. Signaling perhaps the ultimate level of maturity in the social media space, Facebook is now solidifying its power as the arbiter of what flies and what doesn’t between its developers and users. It is also offering a slate of new tools for developers like deeper links between mobile apps and a mobile like button.
“Our goal with Facebook is to build the cross-platform platform and provide all the tools that you need to bridge these different worlds,” Zuckerberg says.
By the time he finished his keynote before an estimated 1,500 developers gathered here for F8, you couldn’t shake the feeling that Facebook had turned a new chapter as a company now valued at more than $155 billion.
Developers, analysts and other attendees mentioned how much the entirely rehearsed, but well polished event reminded them of similar grandstanding performances by Apple and Google. Those comparisons will only get stronger now that Facebook, just like its counterparts in Cupertino and Mountain View, plans to organize the F8 conference every year.
By all accounts, Facebook is embracing those comparisons and basking in its role as the gatekeeper of a growing and increasingly unbundled platform. While last week’s F8 felt relatively low-key at times, many expect Facebook to put on a much splashier show with more significant updates when the company’s legion of developers ascend on Fort Mason for the next F8 on March 25, 2015.
Matt Kapko has been writing about technology since before the dawn of the iPhone, and covering media well before it was social. Matt lives with his wife in a nearly century-old craftsman in Long Beach, Calif. He can be reached on Twitter: @mattkapko or by email: email@example.com.