Think of Facebook and in your mind's eye you will see a billion-strong social network full of posts about feelings, relationships, hangovers and lunch.
Unbeknown to many of its users, however, Facebook is evolving beyond its social network roots with a mobile app platform focus.
This became evident when V3 visited Facebook's London headquarters for a debrief about the announcements made at the firm's F8 developer conference.
The expansion of Facebook's Messenger service to enable developers to integrate it with mobile and web apps was a prominent indication of Facebook's intention to become more of a platform provider that a mere social network site.
Building apps on Facebook is nothing new, but the firm's push into the smartphone software market has accelerated its ambitions to become the platform of choice for mobile developers.
Julien Codorniou, director of platform partnerships at Facebook, said the company is looking to position itself as a platform provider that facilitates app development across multiple web and mobile platforms, rather than having to concentrate on one area or choose between Android and iOS.
"We want to fuel the growth of the next generation of apps," he said, explaining how Facebook has already helped many well-known apps, like Farmville and Shazam, to find success on smartphones and the web.
Providing platforms for app developers to tap into Facebook's users, and the 600 million people who uses its Messenger service, is an obvious move for the company.
Users get access to more apps and better targeted content, while Facebook benefits from more advertising revenue being funnelled through a healthy app ecosystem.
But perhaps less expected was Facebook's foray into the Internet of Things (IoT). So far, the IoT is a fragmented mess of startups, specialist software companies and technology giants like Microsoft, ARM and IBM with the resources and experience to pour into IoT development. It is not traditionally a field for social network firms.
Yet Facebook is making a play for a slice of the IoT market with its Parse developer, web and mobile platform.
By adding new software development kits to Parse, Facebook has tweaked the platform to be used for developing mobile apps that integrate data sucked from networked devices.
This will enable the development of multi-platform apps that can control internet-connected devices. For example, garage doors could be opened via a mobile app based on Parse.
Other technology companies offer such development platforms, but Facebook has targeted Parse as a tool to take care of the fiddly back-end integration of external data with an app's functions. This allows developers to concentrate on crafting an app's user interface and experience instead.
Facebook was keen to highlight that a good user experience is a crucial part of creating a successful app, 400,000 of which have been built with Parse. Facebook clearly learned this through the creation and development of its social network.
Much of Facebook's F8 announcements were logical evolutions of its services, but combined they represent a clear statement of its intention to grow into a major technology company and platform provider.
And if the number of apps and users on Facebook's platforms are to be believed, the company has a clear shot at achieving its ambitions.
20 Mar 2015
Back in December 2013 when Amazon announced it was going to start trailing the use of drones to provide rapid delivery of certain items a few eyebrows were raised.
Not only was the idea somewhat fanciful but the fact it was announced in the run-up to Christmas and so would gain Amazon plenty of digital column inches was also notable.
However, it appears Amazon wasn't just out to grab headlines and has now secured permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly such devices.
Specifically it received an “experimental airworthiness“ for “unmanned aircraft (UAS)” certificate, with some provisos.
“All flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.”
Amazon must also provide monthly data to the FAA on topics including the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.
“The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates,” it added.
Amazon is not the only tech company to take to the skies, with Google and Facebook both donning their flying jackets to test the use of hot air balloons and gliders to deliver the internet to far-flung regions of the globe.
In the UK the rise of drones is causing some concerns among the powers that be, with a House of Lords report suggesting a full database of users and flights should be created to help track their use.
The number of people tapping away on smartphones in public is evidence of how deeply technology has penetrated everyday life.
But technology has now entered the afterlife following the news that Facebook will provide the ability to appoint ‘heirs' to manage an account when its owner dies.
The company explained how a ‘legacy contact' can be added to an account, allowing the assigned person to write a final post to be displayed on the deceased's timeline.
The account will then become a digital memorial which Facebook claims will allow other users to "pay tribute to the deceased".
Legacy contacts will also have the option to change the account's profile picture, meaning that the departed will have relinquished control over their final image.
Those looking to set up a legacy contact will need to pick a trustworthy friend who doesn't take advantage by adding an embarrassing picture to the memorialised profile.
More disturbing still is the ability for the heir to respond to new friend requests, opening up the potential for confusion, disruption to grieving, and rumours of a user's death being greatly exaggerated.
Those concerned about digital skeletons in the closet will be relieved to know that legacy contacts are not granted permission to sift through private Facebook messages.
Legacy contacts can also ask Facebook to permanently delete the account on its owner's death, bypassing the potential for any misunderstanding and inappropriate posting.
At first glance, the addition of legacy contacts on Facebook might seem macabre. But it highlights a growing concern about the status of someone's online information when they die.
Google introduced its take on digital heirs back in 2013, giving users the option to decide on the future of their data when they shuffle of the mortal coil.
The increasing amount of personal information people are pushing onto the internet will no doubt lead to more online services offering the option to assign digital heirs.
This might seem strange to non-digital natives and people who shun social networks, but for active users and future generations, the legacy of personal digital data is likely to receive the same level of consideration as physical possessions in the last will and testament of the deceased.
Social networks are a hubbub of digital noise and chatter, with people posting everything from casual opinions and updates on their breakfast, to breaking news and heated arguments.
Many companies and brands sweep these social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to glean information about potential customers in a bid to better target services and products.
But few would ever think of using that social data as a means of suicide prevention. However, the Samaritans charity has revealed a new website dubbed Samaritans Radar which scans and flags "potentially worrying tweets" to a Twitter user once they register their account.
Developed in partnership with digital agency Jam, the service will email registered users with details of tweets from people they follow that contain phrases such as 'tired of being alone', 'hate myself', and 'depressed', which potentially indicate a risk of suicide.
The email will also contain advice from Samaritans on how Twitter users can support their friends and the people they follow, who may be harbouring suicidal thoughts.
The charity acknowledges that the algorithm will take some tuning to filter out sarcasm and dark jokes: "Samaritans Radar is in its infancy and won't get it right every time. But there's a way for you to give feedback on whether a Samaritans Radar alert was correct, so the service improves for everyone as it learns more."
Samaritans stressed that the Radar will send alerts to Twitter users only by email and will not encroach on their or other users' experiences, nor will it ever post from a registered user account.
While it is not unusual for people to go online for support, the process of applying algorithms to a situation that is open to interpretation and context may seem like a way of dehumanising the provision of personal support - in part digitising empathy.
But with 15 million Twitter users in the UK, Radar could provide an online safety net that has until now been notable by its absence. In turn, Radar could help people take a more active role in giving support to others in a way that has traditionally been the domain of specialist charities.
While Samaritans Radar could be seen as a pseudo nanny state service, it is another example of digital technology that could yield life-saving results.
09 May 2013
Not long ago, a few engineers from Facebook hatched a plan to rethink the way the company built its hardware.
Rather than buy pre-fabricated servers from vendors and plug them directly into a datacentre, they took a close look at close look at their own usage case and began to log what they did and didn't need in server hardware. Eventually, they were able to design a server that eliminated a number of unnecessary components and fashion a design perfectly suited for web applications.
Seeing how well this apporach worked, Facebook opted to make the idea public and the open compute project was born. The idea soon gained steam and before long OCP was being backed by some of the biggest names in the business.
Now, it seems that the idea is making the jump into the networking field. The OCP has unveiled its plans to launch a brainstorming session aimed at creating the blueprints for a no-frills networking switch that could compliment the OCP server platform.
If you're not sure as to the impact of this idea, just take a look at the early backers of the project. In addition to the likes of Intel and Facebook, networking firms such as Brocade and Netronome have signed on to support the project.
One of the big factors in spreading the OCP message is the rise of cloud computing services and the need for larger datacentres as providers scramble to accommodate demand. When under such pressure to scale, often commercial networking, storage and compute products are ill-suited for the job and contain a number of unwanted pieces.
This could be why the OCP has gained such traction, and could gain even further sway in the coming years as virtualisation and cloud computing make hardware setups less and less of a factor for the major buyers.
11 Apr 2013
Time was, any start-up with even the vaguest connection to the 'social' buzzword would have an army of venture capitalists knocking down their doors with the offers of money. Indeed, it's the idea that social ties can provide advertisers with more effective ways to target their message that has seen the likes of Facebook achieve massive valuations.
But what if these social ties aren't as effective as we might assume? That's the conclusion of a group of researchers from Delft University of Technology. Are friends, they wonder, overrated?
Christian Doerr and his colleagues have been studying the impact of social ties on Digg – which may not enjoy the buzz it did in its heyday, but still represents a useful example of how users engage with content on a social network.
Doerr and his group wanted to study what impact friendship had on the popularity of any given story on Digg – and whether friends were a critical component of stories getting promoted to Digg's front page.
Users of the site can vote up content they find interesting, and see what other stories their friends have voted up too. Indeed around 180 stories per day get enough votes to be deemed popular, at which point they're featured on Digg's front page, at which point the can go viral.
In examining which stories went viral, the researchers looked at 10 million stories from two million users over a four-year period, 200,000 of which achieved a critical mass.
"The impact of the friendship relations on the overall functioning and outcome of the social network is actually surprisingly low,” Doerr and his colleagues reported.
So while users with similar interests and physical locations could be seen forming friendships, they showed little sign of following up on what their friends were doing.
“Users with even a nearly identical overlap in interests react on average only with a probability of two percent to information propagated and received from friends,” the researchers note.
Furthermore, of the stories that became popular, friendships were only important in driving popularity in about half of all cases – and even then, they needed a large of random users to vote stories up to the extent they made Digg's front page.
“The importance of friends and the friend network in the propagation of information is less than originally perceived,” they concluded.
Such behaviour is a far cry from the marketing message often pushed out by social networks, who argue that peer group recommendation makes a uniquely powerful way to reach consumers.
The research was published on the ArXiv academic paper [pdf] repository.
Nasa and former Star Trek icon George Takei have both won Shorty awards for their innovative, and often out-of-this-world, use of social media.
Nasa won its second consecutive Shorty award for the best government use of social media, while Takei edged out ever popular "Grumpy Cat" to win a distinguished achievement in internet culture award at the fifth Shorty Awards.
Nasa won the award for its dynamic use of services to share its research findings with the world, sharing things like photos from Mars' surface and explorative satellites to jokes about Pi day.
The agency's policy of encouraging scientists and astronauts to create accounts on Twitter to share their experiences participating in missions was also praised during the ceremony.
The policy means that to date, Nasa uses almost 500 social media accounts with its main @NASA Twitter handle boasting 3.8 million followers.
Web sensation George Takei, the 75-year-old actor and author who first shot into fame as Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek TV series, won his award for very different reasons.
Takei's Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr blog to share comic internet memes sent to him by fans and occasional commentary on poignant political issues.
These have included images of his chief competitor for the award, Grumpy Cat, a feline that seems unimpressed with any item brought before her.
His calls for donations for charitable causes have proved very effective. Takei famously used his Twitter to raise money for disaster relief efforts in Japan following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
You can watch the Takei's acceptance speech for the Shorty award in the video below.
Facebook doesn't make money on hardware, software, or subscriptions. Instead, they make money on the data users put out. They take the data users send out and sell it to advertisers who in turn sell users stuff through the use of targeted ads.
The idea that major corporations sell users data scares a lot of people. These people don't necessarily have anything to hide; they're just ordinary people who like to have a sense of privacy.
These people use Gmail, Facebook, and Google+. Some of them will even probably end up using Facebook Home.
These potential Facebook Home users spoke up about their fears that the app/skin/thing would invade their privacy in a way unheard of previously. So Facebook went on the offensive and dropped a Q&A for Home's privacy policies.
The Q&A basically said Facebook Home doesn't change the way the company handles user data. User's location data won't be collected in anyway that is unique and it won't collect data users create from other apps.
So if nothing changes then what is the end game? Why is Facebook making a free super-app that doesn't do anything new for advertisers? Because by putting itself on your home screen, Facebook can gleam a lot more data using the same policies.
By buying into Facebook Home users will be sort-of using a Facebook ecosystem. Facebook already has an app store which has the potential for growth. It also has a messaging service and a slew of other apps users could use to replace their current Android offerings.
The famous Microsoft "Scroogled" campaign derided Google for searching through Gmail messages to serve up sponsored ads. Google uses all of its apps to give advertisers some new kinds of data.
Now Facebook is doing the same thing as its semi-rival Google. It's building out an ecosystem in attempt to better understand how to sell its users stuff. So if you are the type to worry about Facebook Home's privacy policies, you should be less focused on Home and more focused on Facebook as a whole.
Facebook's current privacy policies are the real issue, not the future violations of an unreleased app. If anything is to be done, it should be getting Facebook to update its current policies to better adapt to mobile.
The company has already defined itself as a mobile company so perhaps it should make privacy policies that reflect that. If Facebook really wants to talk up its privacy agenda, it needs to really work to change what its current policies are and not to talk about what its doing with a new app.