3 key takeaways from Facebook's F8 conference

By Catherine Cheney 14 April 2016

Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook, talks about connectivity in Wednesday's keynote during the F8 conference in San Francisco, California. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it simply at the annual F8 conference in San Francisco, California, this week. Facebook’s mission, he said, is to “give everyone the power to share anything with anyone.”

The same line was projected on a Facebook-blue screen behind him, and the word “everyone” lit up as he explained how the company plans to expand beyond its audience of nearly 1.6 billion by connecting the 4 billion people on the planet who currently lack Internet access.

Zuckerberg outlined a 10 year roadmap for the company. Artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and connectivity for all are the company’s long-term priorities. Despite some high-profile stumbles in India, Zuckerberg sees Facebook’s future intertwined with that of the world’s yet-to-be-connected, and global development professionals will have a role to play in shaping the future of connectivity.

Here are some key takeaways from this week’s F8 conference:

1. Connecting the next billion requires high and low tech approaches.

Zuckerberg described the range of approaches Facebook is taking to tackle barriers of availability, affordability and awareness with Internet.org, and they range from a barebones Internet service to outer space.

In the coming months, Facebook will launch a satellite to connect people in sub-Saharan Africa, and begin test flights of Aquila, the solar powered plane designed to beam Internet from the sky. The company is also working to reduce data consumption with Facebook Lite — which is designed for 2G networks and slow and unstable connections — and reduce data costs with its Telecom Infra Project, Zuckerberg said.

“We’re really going at this problem from every possible angle,” Zuckerberg said in his keynote Tuesday, previewing the expansion of Facebook’s connectivity efforts, which Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering, expanded upon on Wednesday.

ARIES is a proof-of-concept research project that stands for Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum. It improves upon the single antenna model by packing antennas together to beam connectivity to rural areas. Facebook will also run a pilot project for Terragraph — which equips light poles and other objects on the street with antennas — in San Jose, California, later this year before expanding to other cities around the world.

“Our rule at the Connectivity Lab is that we’re looking for gains in technologies that can make things 10 [times] faster or 10 [times] cheaper or both,” Parikh said. “We’re just trying to advance the state of the art.”

2. Building for the bottom of the pyramid is easier said than done.

While much of the conversation at F8 focused on high tech products such as the newly announced Bots for Messenger or the newly unveiled Facebook Surround 360 video capture system, many developers at F8 were drawn to the conference to discuss how to strip their sites of sexy features in order to reach the historically unconnected.

On a Free Basics panel following the morning keynotes Tuesday, entrepreneur Jack Herrick talked about how the Free Basics homepage for his how to website “looks a lot more like Yahoo 1996 than Wikihow 2016.” But that is the kind of experience the company needs to create for its users in emerging markets, he said.

“Free Basics has allowed us to tap into that core audience we would not have been able to reach otherwise,” said Ivy Russell, founder and CEO of Maya, a Bangladesh-based technology company that works with partners such as BRAC, the largest NGO in the world, to connect women with online information.

After talking with Facebook about ways to reach last mile users through Free Basics, Russell and her team saw their traffic increase by 18 times.

“Building for the next billion isn’t simply about having the right infrastructure,” Jackie Chang, who leads global partnerships for Free Basics, said in a panel discussion. “It’s also about the services being built for the people coming onto the Internet for the first time. Is it local? Is it relevant? Does it share the value of the Internet?”

In his keynote, Zuckerberg talked about Augmented Traffic Control, an open source tool that makes it easier to develop services for the next billion people coming online by allowing developers to simulate network conditions in emerging market countries. He also announced a new Free Basics Simulator that will enable developers to preview how their sites will look for Free Basics users with older phones and slower networks.

Ime Archibong, who directs strategic partnerships at Facebook, took the stage shortly after Zuckerberg to talk about how builders can help meet the needs of the unconnected and underserved. He emphasized the need to consider the relevancy of their products and services to their audiences. Behind a backdrop of pictures from roundtable discussions around the world, he said Facebook is doing more to engage local developers because they are most plugged into the needs of their local communities.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 conference. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

3. Build with, and not just for, users in emerging markets.

For Facebook, the annual F8 conference provides an opportunity not only to reach developers, but also to hear from them, and then incorporate what they learn into products over the rest of the year. The developer tools announced at F8 this week resulted from tests with developers across 15 countries.

Both Archibong and Zuckerberg mentioned the success of 1DOC3, a Colombian health information service that helps people find doctors and get medical advice for free. The website gets 21 percent of its traffic from the Free Basics platform. Feedback from teams like 1DOC3’s led to the new Demographic Insights, which allow Free Basics developers to access information about the ages and gender of people using their services, Archibong said.

The F8 booth for FbStart, which helps early stage mobile startups in 136 countries build, grow and monetize their apps, was a popular gathering place for emerging market developers. Archibong and a growing and global team at Facebook focused on developer relations have also been traveling nonstop to meet global developers.

Increasingly, Facebook is looking to growth markets not only as targets for its connectivity efforts, but also as partners for its products and projects. While India banned Free Basics, the country remains a key focus for Facebook, both because it is the social network’s fastest growing market and because it is the second largest hub for developers outside of the United States. It was the Indian music streaming platform Saavn, not Spotify, that was chosen to test Account Kit, a new tool announced at F8 that allows users to sign in with a phone number or email address without having to enter their Facebook login or fill out a form.

Addressing some of the criticism Facebook has faced in India and elsewhere more directly than his CEO did in his F8 keynote, Facebook Chief Marketing Officer Gary Briggs spoke at good@f8, a private event held a day before F8 officially began, about the testing and iterating that is in the DNA of a company whose address is One Hacker Way.

Facebook strives to learn from its mistakes and then keep going, Briggs said. “And through our developers we get insights into little bits of things that maybe are starting to work that we don’t quite see yet.”

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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