|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|July 7, 2014 07:45 AM EDT||
When Facebook decided to invest a cool $19 billion ($16 billion upfront) for messaging app WhatsApp the entire world was bound to take notice. Telecommunications types, in particular, were keen to understand how this latest move would impact them as mobile operators have been feeling the heat from over the top (OTT) players like Google and Facebook for years. (To put this $19 billion in perspective, AT&T, one of the world's largest telecom carriers, invests about $20 billion in networks and spectrum in an entire year.) Shortly thereafter, in another surprise move and with the dust not quite settled on WhatsApp, Facebook picked up virtual reality startup Oculus Rift for $2 billion. This left many in the industry wondering what exactly was going on. While WhatsApp and Facebook's previous acquisition of Instagram for $1 billion were in keeping with its social network roots, Oculus Rift was in the video game industry and had yet to release a product. This led many to ask: What was Zuckerberg thinking? But if you dig deeper, these acquisitions are intertwined and central to Facebook's short and long term play to develop the next-generation communications platform. With WhatsApp and Oculus Rift, Facebook takes on Google and mobile providers in the race to do just that.
Let's start with WhatsApp. Messaging is one of the top activities on smartphones and these apps are increasingly viewed as social networks. WhatsApp is already an international phenomenon, even if it has not made as much of a statement in the U.S. just yet. In some markets, WhatsApp generates almost as much messaging traffic as all traditional carriers combined. Instead of people using carrier text and voice messaging at cents per message, WhatsApp users consume a few bytes of their data plan for close to zero, and send WhatsApp $1 a year. That's correct: WhatsApp charges nothing for the first year of service and then a mere $1 per user per year. That's not much to a phone company, but nice work for an app company getting close to half a billion users. This leads phone companies to pine after all that revenue they're losing. As if that's not enough, WhatsApp will add a voice calling service to its offering. With this capability, WhatsApp Facebook challenges telcos not only on mobile messaging but also for their bread and butter business: phone calls.
Facebook's entire history is all about getting more and more people to sign up and WhatsApp currently boasts more than 450 million active monthly users. The rapid rise of WhatsApp's user-base was largely due to the low cost and its commitment to not collect user data for advertising revenue, despite users providing detailed personal information to the company, including private texts to friends. If these qualities remain intact, the combined user base of both networks will be truly massive.
Zuckerberg assured the world that acquiring WhatsApp was not simply about money, but rather that it was in tune with his vision that everyone in the world should be connected. He has also stated that mobile operators should give away Internet access in developing nations. Who is going to argue against the idea that communications (in the broadest sense) has delivered social and economic benefits to people in affluent countries? If we expand opportunities to communicate by providing cheap and effective tools, then people and economies benefit, and that's a good thing. However, with free Internet access and almost free WhatsApp voice calling, Facebook can offer nearly what carriers can offer and all those customers will in reality have more disposable income to pay bigger subscriptions and respond to ads. This will mean Facebook gets richer, even as Zuckerberg implied that this would be a happy coincidence, and not the fundamental reason for the acquisition. But it's important to remember that mobile operators stand between Facebook and its customers and rallying public opinion behind a noble cause is good for Facebook and makes the carriers look greedy for not supporting the cause.
WhatsApp is obviously an important element of Facebook's strategy and the company is committed to honoring the app's principles: cheap, reliable, easy to use, no ads and preserves privacy. Just like Google, Facebook is increasingly faced with the harsh reality that many people simply don't like or trust its platform. Buying companies like WhatsApp and Oculus Rift and giving them the freedom to stick to their core roots is an important component to growing the all-important subscriber base and restoring the value and "cool" factor of Facebook long term. Rather than trying to integrate acquisitions into the mother ship, Facebook and Google (e.g., Nest acquisition) are taking a similar approach by putting their significant marketing and development resources behind the acquired companies while letting them continue to innovate autonomously.
The autonomous component is a key strategy. Facebook's internal innovations within its original social networking platform (Facebook Platform and Facebook Messenger for PCs) have not been successful. So, just like corporate giants in other industries, Facebook needed fresh infusion from the outside. For example, while Snapchat and Pinterest have been innovating in social media, Facebook bought its way in with the Instagram purchase in 2012. Facebook's "me too," Snapchat look alike app called Poke - an internal endeavor - again didn't make it off the ground. And it's not just Facebook. Google's list of abandoned projects has its own Wikipedia page that is worth a read. However, when you compare these two companies' success rates in innovation to other big companies (e.g. AT&T, GE, Ford, Nokia) they all have lists of failures alongside their successes that keep them in business. We expect Google and Facebook to be different because they are still relatively new, but now they are big and like any large corporation are just as prone to messing up big projects. Following in the path of corporate giants that came before them, buying innovative small companies is critical to their long-term strategy and relevance.
When it comes to these companies' actual wins, some might argue, for example that the Android OS and Google Web Services are only successful because they have been given way to boost Google's real business - Google search and Web ads - which are still responsible for the bulk of Google's revenue. This is a similar theme for Facebook. Both companies are riding the Web advertising wave, but now to stay on top in that field they need to remain the go-to players for the next-generation communications/advertising platform: augmented reality provided by Google Glass and Virtual Reality provided by Oculus Rift (Facebook). However it is important to note that advertising revenue has become, for these companies, not the primary goal, but rather a means to an end. Google's actions suggest that the company has a bigger picture in mind, and Zuckerberg wants to build a lasting place in history for himself and Facebook. Both companies are entering these new modified-reality markets to ensure they have a growing subscriber base and their advertising revenue is protected well into the future to give them the funds they need to do what they want in their endeavors. But that's where the similarities come to a grinding halt.
I'll get into the differences in my next blog. Follow us on Twitter to make sure you don't miss it.
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