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Facebook’s next act: replacing the iPhone

Its Portal video calling device was widely mocked when released in 2018, but sold out at the start of the pandemic. Sales of VR headsets tripled early this year, with Facebook’s Oculus taking three quarters of the market.

“We’re past the inflection point of VR,” Bosworth insists. “People who have critiques probably haven’t spent much time in the modern ecosystem.”

Bosworth is committed to the company’s devices being mass market, in contrast to Apple’s efforts to target the most lucrative consumers.

The 39-year-old says phones, like computers before them, will continue to be widely used, but that their limitations are being exposed.

“The phone will continue to be a tremendously useful device. But because it’s a general purpose device, it can’t do some things better without being worse than other things.

“In VR, in augmented reality, we’re talking about the idea that you can have people that you’re co-present with, who are not physically with you, but you’re all having a shared experience. Those things aren’t possible with a phone.”

Not surprisingly, usurping the iPhone would not be popular among Facebook’s Silicon Valley neighbour. Apple and Facebook have become mortal enemies in recent years. Tim Cook has used Facebook’s privacy scandals as a way to reinforce his company’s credentials, and introduced software updates that have hit the social network’s advertising revenues. Zuckerberg said this year the company was now its biggest competitor.

But Facebook’s push into hardware is not merely an effort to hit the iPhone maker where it hurts. Zuckerberg sees it as crucial to owning the “metaverse”, a term that has become increasingly fashionable among the Silicon Valley cognoscenti to refer to virtual worlds.

Facebook’s Oculus. The company is becoming a rising force in hardware.

Facebook’s Oculus. The company is becoming a rising force in hardware.Credit:Bloomberg

Bosworth is one of Zuckerberg’s key lieutenants in delivering that mission. Two years ahead of the Facebook founder when both were at Harvard, he helped teach an artificial intelligence class that Zuckerberg attended. He joined in 2006, two years after Facebook was founded.

But why should Facebook be entrusted with creating the next big thing after the smartphone? Many regulators consider it to be too powerful as it is, and it suffers from a trust deficit in some quarters.

“We are relatively unique among the tech set, in that our focus is connecting people,” Bosworth says. “We’re one of the most popular products in the history of the world. I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that we’re eager to find more and better ways to help those billions of people connect.”

To that end, Bosworth is committed to the company’s devices being mass market, in contrast to Apple’s efforts to target the most lucrative consumers. “Every time you increase price, you decrease reach, and it becomes inaccessible to people,” he says.

Facebook will want to see an eventual return somewhere, however. Bosworth was the architect of the company’s emergency mission to make money from mobile adverts after its stumbling stock market debut in 2012. He cancelled a six-month sabbatical to help bring investors back on side.

Does that mean a dystopic metaverse stuffed with unskippable commercials beamed into users’ eyeballs? Bosworth bristles at the suggestion. “No one’s proposed that, and I’m a little annoyed you would suggest that anyone had,” he counters. “Facebook’s business advertising is something I’m very proud of. The ads on Facebook are tremendously high quality… certainly relative to ads I get any place else on the internet.” Advertising, it seems, will be at least one way to monetise the metaverse. “It certainly plays a role. I don’t know what role it’s going to play. It’s way too early to say that.”

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Facebook’s journey to displace the iPhone faces perhaps its sternest test yet with the recent release of its camera-equipped sunglasses. As well as a potential stepping stone to more advanced shades, its purpose, at least partly, is to move the Overton window; to make hi-tech glasses a little closer to acceptable attire. “I don’t know of a better way to learn about what society wants than to give it a product and have [people] use it or not use it,” Bosworth says.

The device did not get off to a perfect start, when reviewers observed its dim warning light meant subjects were often unaware they were being filmed. Bosworth says the company welcomes the feedback, adding: “We feel good about our answers. That’s where the scrutiny should be.”

The critics, however, much like the next smartphone-sized revolution, are not yet under Facebook’s control.

Telegraph, London

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