Facebook's Moves buy and the land grab of 2014

Why buy a health tracker? Why not. Facebook is such a well-oiled machine that its CEO can toy around with apps outside the social network's comfort zone.

Facebook hq campus artwork
Artwork at Facebook's Menlo Park campus Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg is a man of his word.

Just one day after Facebook's chief promised more private ways of sharing during an earnings call, he gave us Moves, a smartphone application that tracks the most personal thing of all: how we physically move through life.

Three months ago he did the exact same thing. In speaking with analysts after the social network's fourth quarter earnings report hit the wire, he told us that the singularity of Instagram would be the model for a new direction in standalone apps. The very next day Facebook announced the iOS news app Paper.

The two apps bookend the considerable acquisitions of WhatsApp and Oculus, and the major push around Facebook's in-house mobile messaging app Messenger. This is no coincidence. Moves and Paper, though completely different in consumer purpose, do the same thing: they feed the new machine that is Facebook.

What is that machine? Start listening. The leader of the world's largest social network has been unusually candid, telling us everything we need to know about the company's land grab of 2014. And with two-thirds of the year left, he's bound to bet on something else unexpected.

The Facebook machine

Facebook is a mobile company, and a healthy one at that. Look no further than Wednesday's first-quarter earnings statement for proof. The social network has 1 billion active users on mobile, and mobile sales of around $1.34 billion, which amounts to 59 percent of advertising revenue.

"As this quarter shows, we're ... staying focused on execution and carefully improving our core products and business," Zuckerberg said Wednesday. "Execution gives us the strength to bet on the future."

So we don't need to assume that mobile, particularly the native application where Facebook runs its advertisements, is the essence of the company. Zuckerberg is unequivocal about this fact.

"The Facebook app, by itself, is...not only the most used app, it's the core of our business."

Add to that the investment in Instagram, a smartphone application with 200 million monthly users and the obvious potential to be the No. 2 social network in the world. Then, there's WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app with 500 million monthly users, a $19 billion price tag, and the real chance to act as conduit in connecting hundreds of millions of people around the world to Facebook.

These are the class of second-tier applications that aren't mature businesses themselves, but will be in just a few years. Until then, they're major recruiting vehicles for Facebook proper.

Finally, on the bottom rung, we have Paper, presumably other in-development apps from the social network's Creative Labs division, and now Moves. Paper is Facebook re-imagined for 2014 with an emphasis on news. Moves is a free application for iOS and Android that makes sense of your physical movements to determine whether your walking, cycling, or running, effectively obviating the need for a pricey wristband. Just download the app, set it in motion, and let it do everything but the heavy lifting for you.

moves-app.jpg

Moves, which has been downloaded 4 million times, works phenomenally and it's incredibly cool -- until you realize how creepy it is that the app tracks every step you take and has fallen into the hands of someone you barely trust to manage your social relationships. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one, but realistically this app is so low on the totem pole that you've probably got a few years of running around before Facebook starts eavesdropping.

Wednesday, Zuckerberg made these tier-three apps out to be test-tube babies that help the company experiment with alternative forms of expression. Priority one will be getting them to 100 million people, which could take several years, he said.

So there you have it. This is the new Facebook, a well-oiled machine where strength with its mobile business affords Zuckerberg the opportunity to experiment with anything he wants, be it a health and wellness app, virtual worlds, drones, or the news.

About that bottom rung

While Zuckerberg surely enjoys the chance to toy around with fun apps, we shouldn't confuse Paper, Moves, and the rest to come as mere afterthoughts.

Within Facebook's three-tiered app brigade, Moves sits alongside Paper and gets the company from point A to point B in that it attracts a different type of person, likely someone younger, older, wiser, richer, or fitter than the average person who logs into Facebook every day.

In buying 2-year-old ProtoGeo, which makes Moves, Zuckerberg is invading territory mostly foreign to social networking. It's land that the company seems to value, perhaps because there are parallels if you consider that some fitness apps allow for social encouragement or distribute daily activities like runs out to social networks.

And, if Facebook ever gets around to commingling with its new workout buddy on a data level, and both companies insist that's not in the immediate cards, then you have a situation where Facebook can feed its machine with activity and location targeting data for advertisers with ravenous appetites.

 

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