SAN FRANCISCO —
Facebook’s annual developer conference F8 kicks off this week in San Jose, California, at a time when the social network giant faces more competition in the United States and around the globe.
Developers from Brazil, France, India and Mexico are to gather Tuesday and Wednesday at F8, looking for new tools and features for Facebook’s biggest products — its flagship social network, Instagram, the mobile photo sharing service; and WhatsApp, the instant messaging service Facebook acquired in 2014.
Facebook is expected to show new features for all its main products and woo developers and businesses to make greater use of its services. It’s a technical gabfest, but one that Facebook executives use to unveil new features and talk about the firm’s future. The name of the conference — F8 — comes from Facebook’s tradition of hosting eight-hour hackathons.
While thousands are expected to gather at a convention center in downtown San Jose, elsewhere, in more than 45 cities worldwide, developers will meet to watch Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s opening speech Tuesday morning. The challenge Facebook faces is two-fold — to find more users, and give them more to do.
With 1.9 billion users, Facebook is coming up against the natural limits of its growth. It already reaches more than 20 percent of the 7 billion people on the planet. In the U.S., Canada and Europe, its user growth has been somewhat flat for several years. Competitors such as Snapchat, whose parent company Snap recently went public, are popular with teens and 20-somethings.
"There are no more users to tap into in mature countries," said Brian Blau, research vice president at research firm Gartner. That leaves the rest of the world, where Facebook continues to grow quickly.
Facebook has worked through an initiative called internet.org to expand global connectivity through programs such as Aquila, a solar-powered drone that delivers wi-fi, and Free Basics, which offers access to websites and other services. While the company said last year that it has helped connect more than 40 million people worldwide, Facebook has stumbled in some of these efforts, such as in India.
Facebook’s other big challenge is to deliver more services and features to its existing users so they spend more time during the day in Facebook’s world and, therefore, see more advertisements.
To that end, the conference’s events include sessions on advertisements, games, virtual reality and augmented reality, mixing the digital and virtual realms.
One thing Facebook will likely focus on is offering developers more features for Messenger, its homegrown messaging service, Blau said. The company may decide to allow Messenger, which already has more than 1.2 billion users, to be more independent from Facebook itself, competing against big global messaging systems such as Kik, WeChat, Line and others.
"If you think about it, Facebook’s mission has always been around community and communication and online social activities," Blau said. "And providing communication to people who don’t have that is a way to do it."