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Facebook pivots to what it wishes it was – TechCrunch

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In Facebook’s dreams, it’s a clean and private place. People spend their time having thoughtful discussions in “meaningful” Groups, planning offline meetups with Events or laughing together in a Facebook Watch party.

In reality, Facebook is a cluttered mess of features that seem to constantly leak user data. People waste their time viewing inane News Feed posts from “friends” they never talk to, enviously stalking through photos of peers or chowing on click-bait articles and viral videos in isolation. Facebook will never shake this reputation if it just keeps polishing its old features.

That’s why Facebook is rolling out what could be called an “aspirational redesign” known as FB5. Rather than polishing what Facebook was, it tries to spotlight what it wants to be. “This is the biggest change we’ve made to the Facebook app and site in five years,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said to open Facebook’s F8 conference yesterday.

The new Facebook

Most noticeably, that starts with sucking much of the blue out of the Facebook interface, making it look sparse and calming — despite a More button that unveils the social network’s bloat into dozens of rarely used features. A new logo features a brighter blue bubble around Facebook’s distinctive white f, which attempts to put a more uplifting spin on a bruised brand.

Functionally, FB5 means placing Groups near the center of a freshly tabbed interface for both Facebook’s website and app, and putting suggestions for new ones to join across the service. “Everywhere there are friends, there should be Groups,” says the head of the Facebook app, Fidji Simo. Groups already has 1 billion monthly users, so Facebook is following the behavior pattern and doubling down. But Facebook’s goal is not only to have 2.38 billion people using the feature — the same number as use its whole app — but to get them all into meaningful Groups that emblematize their identity. Indeed, 400 million already are. And now Groups for specific interests like gaming or health support will get special features, and power users will get a dashboard of updates across all their communities.

Groups will be flanked by Marketplace, perhaps the Facebook feature with the most latent potential. It’s a rapidly emerging use case Facebook wants to fuel. Just a year and a half after launch, Marketplace had 800 million monthly users. Zuckerberg took Craigslist, added real identity to thwart bad behavior and now is bolting it to the navigation bar of the most-used app on earth. The result is a place where it’s easy to put things up for sale and get tons of viewers. I once sold a couch on Marketplace in 20 minutes. Now sellers can take payments directly in the app instead of with cash or Venmo, and they can offer to ship items anywhere at the buyer’s expense. By following Zuckerberg’s mandate that 2019 focus on commerce, Facebook has become a viable Shopify competitor.

If Groups is what’s already working about Facebook’s future, Watch is the opposite. It’s a product designed to capture the video viewing bonanza Facebook observes on Netflix and YouTube. But without tentpole content like a “Game of Thrones” or “Stranger Things,” it’s failed to impact the cultural zeitgeist. The closest thing it has to must-see video is Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-runs and a docu-series on NBA star Steph Curry. Facebook claims 75 million people now Watch for at least one minute per day, though those 60 seconds don’t have to be sequential. That’s still just 4 percent of its users. And a Diffusion study found 50 percent of adult U.S. Facebook users had never even heard of Watch. Sticking it front and center demonstrates Facebook’s commitment to making Watch a hit, even if it has to cram it down our throats.

Not the old Facebook

The products of the past got little love onstage at F8. Nothing new for News Feed, Facebook’s mint but also the source of its misinformation woes. In the age of Snapchat and Zuckerberg’s newfound insistence on ephemerality to prevent embarrassment, the Timeline profile chronicling your whole Facebook life got nary a mention. And Pages for businesses that were the center of its monetization strategy years ago didn’t find space in the keynote, similar to how they’ve been butted out of the News Feed by competition and Facebook’s philosophical shift from public content to friends and family.

The one thing we heard a lot about but didn’t actually see much of was privacy. Zuckerberg started the conference declaring “The future is private!” He spoke about how Facebook plans to make its messaging apps encrypted, how it wants to be a living room rather than just a town hall and how it’s following the shift in user behavior away from broadcasting. But we didn’t see any new privacy protections for the developer platform, a replacement for its chief security officer that’s been vacant for nine months or the Clear History feature Zuckerberg announced last year.

“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Zuckerberg joked, without seeming to generate a single laugh. Combined with having little to show to enhance privacy, making fun of such a dire situation doesn’t instill much confidence. When Zuckerberg does take things seriously, it quickly manifests itself in the product, like with Facebook’s 2012 shift to mobile, or in the company, like with 2018’s doubling of security headcount. He knew mobile and content moderation failures could kill his network. But does someone who told Time magazine in 2010 that “What people want isn’t complete privacy” truly see a loose stance on privacy as an existential threat?

Interoperable, encrypted messaging will boost privacy, but it’s also just good business logic given Zuckerberg’s intention to own chat — the heart of your phone. Facebook’s creepiness stems from it sucking in data to power ad targeting. Nothing new was announced to address that. Despite his words, perhaps Zuckerberg doesn’t aspire to make Facebook as private as he aspired to make it mobile and secure. 

Wired reported that Zuckerberg authored a strategy book given to all employees ahead of the IPO that noted “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” But F8 offered a new interpretation. Maybe given the lack of direct competitors in its league, and the absence of a mass exodus over its constant privacy scandals, it was the outdated product itself that was killing Facebook. The permanent Facebook. The all-you-do-is-scroll Facebook. The bored-of-my-friends Facebook. Users were being neglected rather than pushed away or stolen. By ignoring the past and emphasizing the products it aspires to have dominate tomorrow — Groups, Marketplace, Watch — Facebook can start to unchain itself from the toxic brand poisoning its potential.

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Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch

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Hi all! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we quickly sum up some of the most read TechCrunch stories from the past seven days. The goal? Even when you’re swamped, a quick skim of WiR on Saturday morning should give you a pretty good understanding of what happened in tech this week.

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most read

  • Elon’s texts: As part of the ongoing Musk vs. Twitter trial, a big ol’ trove of Twitter-related texts between Elon and various key figures/executives/celebrities has been made public. Amanda and Taylor look at some of the most interesting bits, with appearances from people like Gayle King, Joe Rogan, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (or, as he seems to be named in Elon’s contacts, “jack jack”.)
  • Instagram bans PornHub’s account: “After a weeks-long suspension,” writes Amanda, “Pornhub’s account has been permanently removed from Instagram.” Why? PH says they don’t know, as they insist everything they put on Instagram was totally “PG” while calling for “full transparency and clear explanations.”
  • Interpol issues a red notice for Terra’s founder: “Interpol has issued a red notice for Do Kwon,” write Manish and Kate, “requesting law enforcement agencies worldwide to search for and arrest the Terraform Labs founder whose blockchain startup collapsed earlier this year.”
  • Google Maps’ new features: A bunch of new stuff is coming to Google Maps, and Aisha has the roundup. There’s a new view style meant to help you “immerse” yourself in a city before you visit, a “Neighborhood vibe” feature that aims to capture an area’s highlights, and augmented reality features that use the view from your camera to show exactly where ATMs and coffee shops are.
  • Meta’s hiring freeze: The era of explosive hiring at Meta/Facebook is over, it seems. The company will freeze hiring and “restructure some groups” internally, Zuckerberg reportedly announced during an internal all-hands this week.
  • Hacker hits Fast Company, sends awful push notifications: If you got a particularly vulgar push notification from Fast Company by way of Apple News this week, it’s because a hacker managed to breach the outlet’s content management system. The hacker also apparently published a (now pulled) post on Fast Company outlining how they got in.
  • NASA hits an asteroid: If we needed to hit an asteroid from millions of miles away — to, say, change its course and steer it away from Earth — could we do it? NASA proved they could do just that this week, smashing a purpose-built spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,700 mph. The asteroid in question was never believed to be a threat to Earth, but these are the kinds of things you want tested before they’re necessary.
  • Microsoft confirms Exchange vulnerabilities: “Microsoft has confirmed two unpatched Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities are being exploited by cybercriminals in real-world attacks,” writes Carly. Even worse? There’s no patch yet, though MSFT says one has been put on an “accelerated timeline” and offers temporary mitigation measures in the meantime.

audio roundup

Didn’t have time to tune in to all of TechCrunch’s podcasts this week? Here’s what you might’ve missed:

  • Evernote and mmhmm co-founder Phil Libin joined us on Found to share what he’s learned about remote work and why he’ll “never go to work in the metaverse.”
  • The Chain Reaction crew went deep on why crypto exchange FTX bid billions on a bankrupt company’s assets.
  • Amanda joined Darrell on the TechCrunch Podcast to explore whether Tumblr was reversing its controversial porn ban (spoiler: no), and Devin hopped on to talk all about NASA’s wild anti-asteroid test mission.

techcrunch+

What hides behind the TechCrunch+ paywall? Lots of really great stuff! It’s where we get to step away from the unrelenting news cycle and go a bit deeper on the stuff you tell us you like most. The most-read TC+ stuff this week?

  • Is Silicon Valley really losing its crown?: A provocative question, one asked all the more after COVID flipped the switch on widespread remote work pretty much overnight. Alex dives into the investor data to see where the money is going, and whether or not that’s changed.
  • Investors hit the brakes on productivity software: It’s an Alex Wilhelm double feature this week! After a few quarters of consistent investment growth, it seems investor interest in productivity tools might be waning. Why? Alex looks at why/how investment in the vertical has shifted.
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ByteDance’s Pico debuts its Quest rival, but challenges remain • TechCrunch

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When ByteDance bought the Chinese VR headset maker Pico a year ago, the message it sent was clear: it was betting that the immersive device would be where future generations spend most of their time consuming digital content. It’s a marriage reminiscent of Meta’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014, except the world is now in a different place with technological advances that make VR headsets cheaper, less laggy, and more comfortable to wear.

The TikTok parent has long aimed to compete in a market dominated by Oculus’s VR devices for consumers. When Meta launched Quest 2 in 2020, ByteDance worked on a confidential internal project to develop AR glasses, The Information reported. Pico’s product launch this week is a further indication of its ambition to challenge Quest, which has enjoyed roughly two-thirds of the global AR and VR market for the past two years.

The Pico 4, which starts at €429 (around $420 thanks to a strong dollar) for 128GB and ships to Europe, Japan, and South Korea aside from China, has received applause in the VR community. It weighs only 295 grams without the straps and can function as a standalone device but also be tethered to PCs for more advanced VR experiences. It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor as Quest 2 does. 

“It’s inexpensive and good quality, with specs that can match Quest 2,” says Gavin Newton-Tanzer, host of mixed reality conference AWE Asia.

“Was impressed with the weight, comfort, LCD display, pancake lenses, color AR passthrough, and controllers. All it needs now are serious triple-A VR exclusives to distinguish itself from Meta to get gamers interested,” writes a VR content creator.

Merely “matching” Quest 2 specs doesn’t sound good enough given the latter came out two years ago and became an instant hit. Pico not only has a lot of catch-up to do on the technological front but also in terms of content and branding.

“Oculus’s content ecosystem is more established, providing a better understanding of what consumers want,” says Newton-Tanzer. Popular rhythm game Beat Saber, for instance, had generated $100 million in revenue on Oculus Quest by October 2021.

Pico is facing a chicken-or-egg problem, the XR expert suggests. Its user base across product lines isn’t currently large enough that top-tier creators would be devoted to making games, videos, and other VR content exclusively for its platform. It reportedly sold 500,000 units last year, half of its target. In contrast, Quest 2 shipped 10 million units in the space of October 2020 and November 2021. But without premium content, Pico will have a hard time attracting users in a meaningful way.

The good news is Pico has established a strong foothold in China and doesn’t face much competition in the home market. Oculus doesn’t have an official presence in China, meaning users have to go through the hassle of ordering an overseas version, getting the Oculus app from a foreign app store, and accessing its global app ecosystem through a virtual private network as Meta’s servers are blocked in China.

The technological bifurcation could allow Pico time to test and learn in the home market before launching into the West at full steam. Expansion in the U.S. is already set in motion as ByteDance began building a team for Pico on the West Coast, according to Protocol, with a focus to attract talent in content, marketing, and R&D.

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YouTube TV users can now subscribe to standalone networks without a base plan • TechCrunch

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YouTube TV launched a new option that allows subscribers to purchase add-ons without subscribing to the full channel offering in the service’s Base plan. With this new à la carte plan, subscribers can access more than 20 add-on channels, from Showtime and HBO Max to NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, and Starz among others.

This confirms reports that the company was looking to launch a YouTube channel store and join many other services that aggregate streaming subscriptions. Sling TV, Roku, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV offer standalone options.

So, rather than spending $64.99 a month for the YouTube TV Base Plan that provides over 85 channels, consumers can now choose a more flexible option that allows them to mix and match from select entertainment networks, live sports and more, all within one app.

Customers can add or remove a network at any time they want as well as manage billing from the YouTube TV interface. To switch to the add-on only plan, users can go to “Settings” and select “Membership” then “Manage” to cancel the base plan. Choose “Update memberships” to add individual networks to the membership.

Like the base plan, subscribers with the à la carte plan still get access to an Unlimited DVR, three simultaneous streams and six household accounts.

Here is the full list of channels that subscribers can select from.

  • HBO Max
  • Showtime
  • Starz
  • MLB.TV
  • NBA League Pass
  • Cinemax
  • Epix
  • Hallmark Movies Now
  • Acorn
  • CuriosityStream
  • Outside TV Features
  • ALLBLK
  • Shudder
  • Sundance Now
  • IFC Films Unlimited
  • Dove Channel
  • CONtv
  • Docurama
  • Law & Crime
  • VSIN

 

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