Back in April, Facebook CEO and all-around wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg went on stage at the F8 conference and shared the company’s ten-year roadmap for how it thinks about new technologies – from apps like Instagram and Messenger, all the way up to futuristic tech like virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Here it is:
“That’s the road map for the next 10 years,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “We are building the technology to give anyone the power to share anything they want with anyone else.”
At a gathering of reporters last week at the social network’s Silicon Valley headquarters, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer opened up about how this 10-year plan is causing the company to shift gears – from building web and mobile apps, to expanding its horizons to hardware and other “stuff that’ll be riskier over a long time horizon.”
“We have to invest in stuff we don’t know will work,” Schroepfer says.
In fact, Schroepfer says, Facebook isn’t even yet certain how all of these initiatives will affect the bottom line in its core advertising businesses, or even how they’ll change where its revenue will come from going forward…and that’s okay.
Putting aside decade-long initiatives like Oculus, the reason why even mega-popular apps like Messenger and WhatsApp are listed under the 5-year mark on Zuckerberg’s chart is because that’s how long the company anticipates before the products and the market align and translate into meaningful revenue.
“We think it’ll be a long time before we have a business model for those,” Schroepfer says.
In fact, Schroepfer says, he kind of sees Messenger and WhatsApp as “in the middle” between the chat apps we like using today and the virtual reality future of tomorrow. From Facebook’s perspective, both technologies enable people to connect with each other, and “VR is going to be the best form of that,” he says.
But that’s all years off. And between now and then, Schroepfer says, Facebook is taking advantage of its famous willingness to move fast and break things as it experiments and refines its approach to building the future.
‘They don’t always work’
For instance, Schroepfer calls out the SpaceX rocket explosion back in September that ended up destroying the AMOS-6 satellite, a project of Facebook’s Internet.org program to deliver internet to the developing world. The loss of Facebook’s first-ever satellite was definitely a huge setback (though he says it’s “kind of funny now”).
That’s the thing about ten-year bets, though: “They don’t always work,” Schroepfer says. “That’s why we do multiple things at once.”
Here, Schroepfer is referring to Facebook’s other efforts in connecting the world to the internet, including the Aquila laser-shooting autonomous drone and Terragraph, a plan to explore super-high-speed wireless internet in urban areas.
But it also applies to the adjustments Facebook has had to make to its philosophy, particularly around research and development, as it expands beyond a social network and software company into new, uncharted territory.
‘Do we really need to know this right now?’
Between building drones, manufacturing the Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, prototyping new hardware, and building the ever-growing data center infrastructure to support it all, Facebook has to learn how to master manufacturing, logistics, and supply chains the same way it had to shift from the web to mobile apps, he says.
Schroepfer jokes that, recently, a Facebook employee came to him to ask for an estimate for how much steel the company might need in the next two years for planning purposes. “I said, ‘Do we really need to know this right now?’ And they’re like ‘yup.'”
It’s a lot of work for relatively unproven technologies like virtual reality, which Facebook strongly believes will be the best way for people to connect with friends and relatives around the planet, but which even the biggest advocates for the technology admit is still years away from full maturity and mainstream success.
“The thing we are madly focused on is: VR is this powerful enabling technology, how do we get it out in the world in widescale form?” says Schroepfer. “It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to set up, there’s not enough good content.”
That’s why Facebook is working hard at improving its virtual reality hardware designs, building lighter goggles that are independent of a computer, but that can still deliver real graphical power. It makes it more accessible to everyone.
This even dovetails with the company’s longterm plan for virtual reality: Zuckerberg has said that Facebook plans to build augmented reality glasses that project computer images in your field of view; Schroepfer says that this might be a key way you interact with artificially intelligent systems in the future.
‘It’s a good thing’
In general, though, Schroepfer says he sees all of Facebook’s investments, in all of these categories, as working towards a social good.
“Every study I can find says that when you take a random person and connect them to the internet, it’s a good thing,” Schroepfer says.
And while it may be a long time before the whole world is wired up enough to really take advantage of cutting-edge stuff like Oculus virtual reality, Facebook’s efforts around connectivity lay the groundwork to get everybody on the same page.
After all, Schroepfer says, if there’s one thing everybody needs to do, it’s communicate with other people.
And when it comes to the ethics of a private Silicon Valley company taking it upon itself to be the one to wire up the world, especially after some controversies in countries like India, Schroepfer says that the key is being open and sharing as much of its plan with everybody as it can.
“I think transparency is the way to let people come to their own conclusions on the work we’re doing,” Schroepfer says. “I think these technologies really positively impact everybody.”