Can you make a giant dance? Facebook tries to innovate

Facebook sign, Menlo Park

Big established companies that dominate their industries often find it gets harder to innovate - so is Facebook now about to face that same problem? I've just spent three hours at the social network's headquarters trying to work out whether it can stay ahead as it grows ever bigger.

Life must look good if you're one of the nearly 4,000 people who turn up for work at the sprawling campus in Menlo Park in California, where the central plaza Hacker Square is dotted with cafes and people stroll in the sunshine toting their laptops as they head for the next meeting.

With profits now rolling in from mobile advertising, and much of the focus remaining on improving the core product, it is hard to remember the last big Facebook innovation. The company seems to buy new ideas - from Instagram to WhatsApp to Oculus Rift - rather than developing its own.

But in apparent recognition of that problem, Facebook now has a division called Creative Labs, which consists of small teams given the freedom to work on stand-alone mobile apps. Many are expected to fail, according to Will Cathcart who runs this project, but a few may come up with a winning idea.

I met the team behind Slingshot, which has been out in the US for a couple of weeks and is now launching worldwide.

BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones meets the developers of the Slingshot app at Facebook's headquarters in California

This is an app which allows you to send - or rather sling - photos and videos to your friends. The trick is they can only see them if they sling something back.

It's quite slick and fun - though having installed the app last week I found that the tech blogger Robert Scoble had sent me 16 slingshots which I couldn't see until I found something worth slinging back. Maybe it's not for my demographic…

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Many of [Google's] ideas seem to reflect an engineer's dreams rather than a marketing executive's shrewd appraisal of what consumers will buy”

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Slingshot is obviously aimed at the Snapchat crowd, young people always on the lookout for a new way of communicating and promiscuous in their use of social media.

Having failed to buy the app whose snaps vanish into thin air after opening, the undisputed king of social networking is now trying to shore up its defences by offering something similar.

Only the paranoid survive, as the Silicon Valley mantra goes, so Facebook is probably right to try anything and everything that might stop younger users slipping away from its orbit.

In its approach to innovation, Mark Zuckerberg's company is far more focused but less adventurous than another tech giant. Google has poured huge sums into Google X, the divisions which undertake so-called "moonshots" like the self-driving car or Project Loon which aims to deliver internet access via high-altitude balloon.

None of these projects looks likely to deliver much, if any, revenue to Google's bottom line in the near future, yet the search giant can probably afford to go on allowing its engineers to spend much time and huge amounts of money on them.

Slingshot Slingshot users must send back an image of their own to un-pixelate the photos they receive

Unlike Facebook, Google's core business of search-based advertising does not appear to be under threat from some twenty-something with a bright new idea.

That makes it a more exciting company to watch than Facebook, even if many of its hardware ideas seem to reflect an engineer's dreams rather than a marketing executive's shrewd appraisal of what consumers will buy. Later today its annual developer conference Google I/O gets underway with a keynote which should see lots of new wearable technology unveiled. We'll be assessing how nimbly Google is dancing into the future.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Facebook is a nightmare. I find it unusable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "Google has poured huge sums into Google X....."

    It's amazing the rubbish you can fund when you don't pay any tax. Don't worry Google, the rest of us will pay for the hospitals, schools, roads, universities etc whilst the billionaires scheme & plot to acquire ever more money. Just tell us Google, how many more billions do you want? Is it even possible to satisfy your greed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Facebook is suffering from what all previous similar companies have had to cope with.
    Its going out of fashion...It happened to Friends Reunited, MySpace,Bebo etc.

    The young "in crowd" will soon move on to something else

    Twitter, Beware !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Sir John Rose (formerly of Rolls-Royce) said it best:

    "There are only three ways to make REAL money. Grow things (plants and animals), manufacture products or dig resources out of the ground."

    Everything else is just shuffling about money that other people have made from doing the above three activities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Wow, a new division called Creative Labs.... they can't even think up at original name not already associated with computers.

    Well done, you guys are just great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Take my advice and delete facebook and not use google products.

    Teresa May says we are not turning into a surveillance nation, yet seeks more powers to snoop on Google users.

    Snowden was right, we are sleep walking into a police state.

    Time to wake up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Sounds like a harmless enough idea, I hope these twenty-somethings with a need to proliferate images via a portable Internet-enabled device are also informed of any other data they may or may not be sending out along with their images.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    As long as there are narcissists, it will... says it all? I work for some companies who try to maintain a Facebook presence. It's tough, they don't have that much to say, but say it anyway to feed the neophilia of our age.... The result is mostly bee and ess, and I believe a newer generation will recognize that and start switching off. Maybe too optimistic, and the Orwellian system will persist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "Many of [Google's] ideas seem to reflect an engineer's dreams rather than a marketing executive's shrewd appraisal of what consumers will buy"

    And there you have it in a nutshell. It's nothing to do with innovation, it's all about the money... as usual

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Facebook's problem is that it was never invented to be a money-making business in the first place. The monetisation of it is an add-on, and that's why'll they'll always struggle: it's like trying to attach wings to a boat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Sounds like a terrible app. Thanks Facebook!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    If 'Slingshot' is the best Facebook can come up with, then I think it's best they keep just buying companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Being forced to use something just to see what was sent to you?

    How is that useful or fun to the user?


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