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Facebook to developers: Please friend us

The world's largest social network, set to host its annual developers conference this week, wants a piece of the app pie.

Mark Zuckerberg wants app developers to help him move with the times.

Facebook last year changed its unofficial motto from "move fast and break things" to "move fast with stable infrastructure," a sign it would stop inflicting weird or inconsistent programming on its partners. Now Facebook's CEO and co-founder is expected to deliver a new message to programmers gathering for this week's developers conference, called F8, in San Francisco: Work with us.

Facebook is a technology powerhouse, racking up ad sales and profit at a blistering pace. Last year alone, the world's largest social network reported sales jumping nearly 60 percent, to $12.5 billion while raising profits by more than a third. Nearly 900 million people -- or roughly 1 out of every 7 people on the planet -- log on to the site every day, making it among the most influential companies on the Web.

But Zuckerberg knows that to stay that way, Facebook needs help from app developers, of all sizes and across industries. When they connect with his service -- whether it's by letting people upload photos, play games or share articles, or even by displaying an ad -- Facebook becomes more ingrained in customers' lives. And Zuckerberg wants more: More apps, providing more ways to engage users and, ultimately, attract more advertising. (Facebook gets almost all its sales from advertising.)

Basically, developers create the glue that makes Facebook "sticky," giving people a reason to spend long periods on the site.

In a way, these developer conferences are as much promotional as they are educational. "They're so developers will work with them, and look at them and build buzz around their products," said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Capital.

Don't underestimate the importance of that kind of buzz. As Facebook has grown, it's taken on a broad range of rivals, from titans like Google to skyrocketing startups like the messaging service Snapchat. It needs developer partners to fortify its position.

It's also facing heavy competition for developers' time and attention. Over the next several months, Microsoft, Google and Apple will hold their own developers conferences in San Francisco, seeking to attract potential partners and inspire the next big startup.

A year of messaging

One of the most important technology trends of the past year has been messaging. Snapchat is estimated to have more than 100 million monthly users. WeChat, used primarily in Asia, connects more than 438 million active users. This helps explains Facebook's interest in messaging. The company reportedly attempted to buy Snapchat for $3 billion in 2013. Not six months later, it said it would pay more than $19 billion for WhatsApp, which helps millions of people circumvent text messaging charges between countries. More than 700 million people around the world used WhatsApp as of January.

Facebook last year also began requiring its mobile users to send messages through its standalone Messenger app, instead of through Facebook itself. The rationale for that switch?

"Messaging is one of the few things people do more than social networking," Zuckerberg explained in November. It's a question of numbers: In some countries, more people use a chat app or text messages than use Facebook, he said.

The company is expected this week to announce new functionality for Messenger that will make it easier for developers to share content between their apps and the social-networking service.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.

An eye toward the future

One of the key presentations will be when Facebook talks about the future of virtual reality, which immerses goggle-wearing users in 3D, alien worlds. After years of being relegated to science fiction, virtual reality is poised to go mainstream.

At the center of that shift is Oculus, which first ignited consumer interest in 2012 when it began selling $300 prototypes. The video game industry, in particular, saw virtual reality as a new feature to juice sales -- prompting a slew of companies, including Sony, Microsoft and smartphone maker HTC, to produce goggles too.

Facebook last year agreed to buy Oculus for more than $2 billion. At the time, Zuckerberg said the technology had the potential to revolutionize how people use computers and communicate with one another.

This week, Facebook and Zuckerberg will paint a picture of how virtual reality affects our lives. And they'll pitch developers about the role they can play in that change. The question is: Are they game?