This week, Facebook took a number of strategic steps toward its goal of giving people the "power to share and make the world more open and connected." That's how founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the mission statement for Facebook.
With that mission statement, similar to Google's mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," Facebook is highlighting its noble aspirations, but underneath the "make the world a better place" is the fact that both Facebook and Google, as well as Yahoo, Microsoft, MySpace, and others want to be the portal for the masses.
By portal, I mean more than just a place to share content with friends, search or wire up a social graph. If the Web is becoming social at its core, Facebook (90 million and growing at hundreds of thousands per day) and its competitors want to be the center of their members' lives in the same way that MyYahoo became a personalized home base for millions of users over the last decade.
As evidence of Facebook's portal ambitions, the company introduced Facebook Connect, which will let users access and feed their Facebook profiles and friends on any Web site. Facebook is the identity system and portal through which the content from other sites flows--all roads leading to Facebook, which is distinct from what Google's more open and distributed approach with Friend Connect. Facebook Connect is not yet generally available, but demos from Digg and Six Apart, among others, indicate that it has substance.
You are essentially telling Facebook's proverbial brain what topics -- blogs or specific posts -- with which you like to engage. In other words, you just told the system a little bit about yourself. Now imagine such information coming from dozens of Facebook Connect partners.
Each service adds a few more data points about you inside the Facebook brain, which is quite aware of your activities inside the Facebook ecosystem. The brain can then crunch all that information and build a fairly accurate image of who you are, what you like and what might interest you. With all that information at its disposal, Facebook can build a fairly large cash register.
The cash register is an advertising platform, a follow on to Beacon, that leverages the social graph and each member as a potential marketing engine. With all the data and user permissions, ad targeting could be more precise. Zuckerberg has also talked about a payments system, a la PayPal, for the platform. After getting Chat launched, Facebook is likely working on making its e-mail application more robust as part of building out the portal.
With 400,000 developers, according to Facebook, working on the platform, thousands of applications--from e-commerce to games--and widgets with any kind of feed will be available for each user's Facebook portal.
Facebook also has more than 10 million users of its mobile services, which is the next major frontier for building user portals. For example, Facebook Connect for Mobile, due for release in the fall, will allow members to hook up with friends over mobile devices to play games with friends and learn which friends downloaded applications of shared interest.
Challenges for Facebook are scaling to support the increased amount of data pouring into its servers and adapting to different geographies. More than two-thirds of Facebook users are outside of the U.S., but all of Facebook's servers are inside the U.S. Decreasing latency, which leads to increased page views, will be a key to Facebook's ability to keep up with demand.
If Facebook can continue to roll out new features, maintain its growth pace and improve site performance, it will be on a collision course with the Web portal giants who were born in the 20th century. Of course, one of those Web giants may pay mega-billions to consolidate the market, but it's unlikely that Facebook will give up its independence any time soon.