To me, the most exciting part of the Facebook/WhatsApp deal has nothing to do with the deal itself. Instead, I’m excited about the ramifications of such a deal. And I’m not talking about Facebook or WhatsApp here either. History will ultimately prove that deal genius or folly. But more importantly, I know that a deal like this has other people talking, thinking, and building.
The last group is key, but let me start with the first group. Once the fervor around the deal itself died down, we got a couple of compelling posts from the likes of Benedict Evans and riffing on it, John Lilly. Incidentally, both are now VCs. But neither started out that way, and both have long histories of solid thinking and writing.
Both understand that the Facebook/WhatsApp deal is simply the strongest signal yet that we’ve fully entered a new age in the world of computing where mobile is now the kingdom. And the $19 billion price tag simply shows that there isn’t yet a king.
Facebook was a king in the last kingdom, the Web. And while they seem to be transitioning fairly well over to this new kingdom (after stumbling badly out of the gate), the $19 billion figure shows that they’re well aware that not only are they not anointed yet, they’re just as likely to be overthrown.
This kingdom is truly different. Many of the dynamics that led to Facebook’s rise as social engulfed the Web are no longer at play. This is why Facebook is transitioning from a hub of features behind a great wall to an unbundled island of apps. But this has to be terrifying for them because the glue that once held things together so tightly, the social graph, is starting to wear off. With no more wall and no more glue…
…You start looking for more glue to bring things back together. No matter the cost. And once you do that, you figure out how to build a new wall.
But again, everything is different now. I have no doubt we’ll see a walled service rise again because such things seem cyclical in nature: America Online gives way to the Web gives way to Facebook gives way to… where we are now.1 What I suspect we’ll see first is something more akin to what Google was for the Web: a unifying force.
Evans first brought up this idea yesterday:
Finally, mobile social apps are not, really, about free SMS. Mobile discovery and acquisition is a mess - it’s in a ‘pre-pagerank’ phase where we lack the right tools and paths to find and discover content and services efficiently. Social apps may well be a major part of this, as I discussed in detail here. These apps have the opportunity to be a third channel in parallel to Google and Facebook.
Lilly expanded upon the idea today:
And mobile today, and the promise of what is yet to come, is so much more massive than what we saw with the web. So many more people. Connected more often. To more of their friends. And more of the things in the world connecting too. Orders of magnitude bigger.
But it’s also more fragmented, more siloed. Backrub was possible because links were open & inspectable, and the web was crawlable by anyone.
That isn’t really the case for mobile yet. Much of the content & services & connections is all locked up by the big, sophisticated players. So data is more fragmented, more separate. And less mash-uppable. So we got apps, and daily/hourly engagement with billions of people. But we haven’t figured out how to sort it yet. Haven’t figured out how to find & share.
Someone is going to figure this out. Evans has made the case that social apps such as WhatsApp could be a new channel to connect everything mobile. And some of the platform work being laid by them and others is definitely interesting. But I still get this feeling that the actual solution will be less straightforward. I’m waiting for something that will unify the world of apps and make manually going to an App Store to find a new app as weird as typing in a URL to find a new website.2
My bet is that this won’t be Facebook. Instead, I would not bet against some young upstart, perhaps one inspired upon reading about a $19 billion deal, to go heads-down and come up with something crazy.
Now that’s exciting.
You can certainly argue that Apple was able to build a wall with the iPhone, but it didn’t stand for long because of Android. And this duopoly prevents either side from being fully walled and likely prevents either from being a unifying solution here. ↩
People still of course do it, but everyone increasingly relies on Google to find anything. Hence, the Omnibox replacing the URL box on basically all browsers. ↩