Instagram deal: Just the start for a new Facebook

With an IPO around the corner, Facebook shows it can wheel and (billion-dollar) deal. Put another way, although it's becoming a tired comparison, Facebook is Google roughly 10 years ago.

Our grandchildren may one day call him the "Sultan of Social." Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

This January at CES in Las Vegas, Facebook's platform partnerships guru Justin Osofsky shared a vision with me of a future in which Facebook is everywhere -- yes, even more than it already is.

But who would have guessed that could mean Facebook would purchase a tunnel directly into other social networks?

That's just one of the many things Facebook bought with its billion-dollar purchase of Instagram today.

In his announcement of the acquisition, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that Instagram won't simply be swallowed and planted in Facebook's walled garden:

We think the fact that Instagram is connected to other services beyond Facebook is an important part of the experience. We plan on keeping features like the ability to post to other social networks, the ability to not share your Instagrams on Facebook if you want, and the ability to have followers and follow people separately from your friends on Facebook.

How considerate of Facebook not to dismantle the billion-dollar freeway leading directly into millions of Twitter and Tumblr feeds that it just purchased. Of course, this deal is much bigger than simply buying a hot app or insinuating Facebook a little deeper into rival networks.

"We think we're in the early days as a platform company," Facebook's Osofsky told me in January. "Facebook should be a part of every screen...from cars to consoles to TVs to tablets."

For casual Facebook users, it might seem hard to imagine just how that might take shape, so here's a quick exercise to help visualize the future Facebook wants to build. Imagine getting through your entire day, all your work, social, and family commitments without texting, checking e-mail, or using any Google products. Yes, the world once turned in the same fashion without relying on any of these things, Virginia.

Facebook hopes that in the future you could substitute it for all of the above technologies -- and many more, actually -- in that hypothetical and feel the same aching dread at the thought of having to do without it even for a single day.

And while Instagram's only a photo-sharing app for the hipper-than-average set, Facebook likely sees buying it as a big step down the path to building this future. It's an acknowledgement that even after building the largest centrally controlled network of any kind in human history, sometimes others can still beat the master at the sharing game. And in Silicon Valley, if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

Put another way, although it's becoming a tired comparison, Facebook is Google roughly 10 years ago. Facebook has defined social as Google-defined search, and now, with an IPO on the horizon -- as there was when Google bought Blogger in 2003 -- it's time to back up a big valuation with big moves (billion-dollar moves, in fact).

After winning the search game, Google began -- haphazardly -- attempting to remake the rest of the world's information (and briefly, even our energy supplies) in its own image and has only recently pared back to refocus solely on "organizing the world's information."

Facebook is about to embark on its own particularly epic chapter of the company's existential quest to become humanity's central nervous system for sharing anything and everything -- and apparently it all starts with an app, a few filters, and millions of pretty pictures.

 

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