Facebook is branching out from its flagship "blue app" to become a broad-based technology company both in its products and behind the scenes.
To serve billions more people on top of its current 3 billion users, Facebook will have to become "one of the greatest technology companies in the world," said Jay Parikh, Facebook's vice president of infrastructure engineering, at the MIT Technology Review Digital Summit in San Francisco.
That includes Facebook building its own data-center infrastructure, as it has done since 2010, and efforts such as Internet.org to bring people in developing countries online. But the company is also offering a wider range of applications and services to meet its users' needs at different times and places, Parikh said. It's already branched out from its main social-networking service to Instagram and the stand-alone Messenger app and will launch WhatsApp after completing its US$19 billion acquisition. But Facebook is also developing future apps, some of them through Facebook Creative Labs, an initiative that so far has spawned the Paper news app for iPhones.
"You'll see a sequence of other apps coming out," Parikh said. "We just want to have an avenue where we can try lots of stuff out."
Features of the new tools that Creative Labs invents, including aspects of Paper, will in turn find their way into other Facebook offerings, including its main social-networking platform, he said.
Paper delivers content from various media sources and a user's Facebook friends in a customizable format that's dramatically different from the main Facebook interface.
Eventually, Facebook's range of offerings will include social functions that use the virtual-reality platform from Oculus VR, which Facebook agreed to buy for $2 billion earlier this year, Parikh said. Users may be able to virtually visit a place, visit a doctor, watch a sporting event or play a game with friends via virtual reality, he said. But there's plenty of work left to do, including possibly crafting ways to let users reach into the Oculus Rift's immersive world with their hands, he said.
Facebook is expanding its offerings partly so its main platform doesn't get overloaded, Parikh said.
"You can only cram so much into the main app," he said. In a typical user's News Feed, there may be 1,500 or 2,000 "stories" per day, and especially active users with lots of friends may get upwards of 20,000. The company is constantly developing and refining ways to make that content navigable in the time a user may spend with the News Feed daily, Parikh said. For example, the company uses machine learning and user feedback to revise the way stories are shown.
"This is a very measured approach, even though it may feel very random to users," Parikh said.
Facebook wants to refine what it offers even more thoroughly through what it calls "deep learning," through techniques such as image processing and face recognition, Parikh said. That effort is still in its early days, and the deep-learning team thinks a lot about the ethical issues involved, he said. The specter of an all-knowing network of robot satellites is still far off, according to Parikh.
"We're nowhere near SkyNet today," he said.