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Facebook to developers: You do better, we do better

Mark Zuckerberg and his lieutenants use the F8 developer conference to hammer home an overarching message to attendees: When it comes to business, what's good for you is good for us.

Facebook announced a number of Developer tools at its F8 conference on Wednesday. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook is in a good place.

If that's not evidenced by the social network's impressive financial performance last quarter -- sales ballooned to $2.5 billion helped by a thriving mobile advertising business -- it is present in Facebook's overarching strategy: help others.

That's not just altruism -- though CEO Mark Zuckerberg did specifically reflect on philanthropy during his Wednesday keynote at F8, Facebook's web developer conference here. Instead, it's the acknowledgement that giving app developers a helping hand offers direct and indirect help to the company's bottom line. Wednesday's event signaled a new focus on developers, a group that the company has sometimes underserved.

"They needed to have this kind of a message," said Brian Blau, an analyst at the research firm Gartner. "Having that customer-first approach for developers is something they probably should have done a long time ago."

Facebook's push to court developers more assiduously isn't entirely new. Last year, the company acquired the startup Parse, which builds backend tools that developers use for running and operating their apps. Parse co-founder Ilya Sukhar had a major presence at the event, taking the stage right after Zuckerberg.

During the keynote, Zuckerberg waxed poetic about Facebook's famous hacker culture, which celebrates engineering prowess with irreverence. But it has its limits. "Our hacker culture is inherently focused on us. The way we do things. It's not really that focused on the people we serve," said Zuckerberg said on stage, referring in part to the hundreds of thousands of developers who use developer tools offered by Facebook.

Facebook is currently in expansion mode. The company has spent billions of dollars in the past few months on services like the messaging app WhatsApp and the virtual reality company Oculus. With the Oculus acquisition in particular, the goal is to make sure Facebook is an early mover on the next large communications platform. Also, given the lead enjoyed by Apple's iOS operating system and Google's Android OS on smartphones and tablets, Facebook's new outreach to developers is another way to make a run on mobile.

The product announcements today certainly reflected that theme. Facebook announced the FBStart program, which offers incentives like $5,000 in free services for new developers, or $30,000 in free services for developers who are further along on their projects. The company also promised that it would keep its core APIs, or application programming interfaces including the company's popular login and sharing tools, free from major changes for two years. Erratic changes to the APIs has been a chief complaint against Facebook's platform, so that announcement in particular solicited applause from the audience.

Facebook doesn't need much help in the realm of mobile advertising, but the company nevertheless made another push in that area. The company announced the Facebook Audience Network, which lets advertisers target customers using Facebook's vast trove of user data to place ads on properties outside of Facebook.

"This is really the first time that we're going to help [developers] monetize in a serious way on mobile," said Zuckerberg.

While the expansion of the company's ad business is a clear boon for the company's revenue, it's also good for Facebook Platform, the part of the company that offers developers tools. When developers make money, "that's great for us," said Sriram Krishnan, a mobile product manager who worked on the ad network. "We're in the business of helping developers," he told CNET, referring to Facebook Platform.

That also has indirect benefits for the company. "If they do well, they might decide, 'We have a marketing budget now.' They might spend on mobile app ads," said a Facebook spokesperson.

The developers themselves seemed to appreciate it. "I think the commitment to an API for two years is a good thing," said Tom Newton, the head of social gaming for Gamesys, a London-based company that has developed apps on Facebook since 2009. While his company hasn't been burned by major changes in the platform, he said smaller teams have felt the pain of that lack of stability.

Speaking of stability, the company will offer its celebration of developers on a more regular basis now. The F8 conference has been erratic in the past. Wednesday's confab marked the first time the company held the event since 2011, before Facebook was even a public company. There was also no F8 in 2009. But even before Zuckerberg left the stage on Wednesday, he announced that next year's event will be held at the end of March. "It will be around that time every year," he said.