The future according to Zuckerberg: All Facebook, all the time

Mark Zuckerberg describes how Facebook will connect people to media based on the strengths of their connections to other people. James Martin/CNET

COMMENTARY - In the news trade, they call it burying the lede and on Thursday the biggest headline out of Facebook's big developer conference was all but ignored amid the understandable fuss made about open graphs, user timelines and music sharing in real time.

Little surprise, really. What advantage was there for Mark Zuckerberg to wave a red cape in front of his rivals - current or future? After all, the day was chockablock with meaty announcements and there was enough on the docket to give fans and bloggers enough fodder to chew over for now.

But let's step back and consider just how rapidly Zuckerberg and his cohorts are working to turn Facebook into a platform that would have an intimate influence over what we choose to buy, read and hear. The road map isn't any secret. He told the crowd that "the next five years are going to be defined by the apps and depth of engagement." Translation: in the future according to Zuckerberg, every application would be "social" and, best of all from The Hoodie's point of view, inextricably linked to Facebook's platform. Think about it: All that data, all that information - and all that potential advertising. It's a breathtaking ambition.

Before getting too carried away, however, I have to insert the mandatory "to be sure" paragraph.

Tech industry lore is filled with examples of big, bold ideas challenging conventional thinking about platforms - and this one is that harder to handicap precisely because it's so all-encompassing. Whether Facebook will succeed where others have failed is the $64, 000 question we can't yet answer.

CBS News: Facebook ramps up colonization of the Web
CNET: How to sign up for Timeline
Facebook: Tell your story with Timeline
ZDNet: A closer look at the Facebook Timeline and the Open Graph
CNET: Facebook's new version of the "Open Graph"

During the early 1990s, for instance, I remember the excitement about Java's potential for supplanting Windows as the development platform. That ambition came up short for any number of reasons, not the least being Microsoft's determination to squash so-called middleware threats to its operating system dominance. Later on, with the rise of the commercial Internet, Netscape enjoyed its moment in the sun and many people similarly thought the web browser would emerge as the technology world's de-facto application development platform. Unfortunately for Netscape, it was an idea years ahead of its time.

So if you had asked me a year ago about Facebook's chances of becoming much more than a very sticky destination site - a franchise, coincidentally, that's already valued in the tens of billions of dollars - I would have put the odds at less than 50 percent. Google was developing its own social network and it was just a matter of time before Eric Schmidt, reprising the cameo of Ming the Merciless, turned on the Death Ray. That was before Zuckerberg donned the Flash Gordon garb and turned the tables.

Writing about why Google ought to worry about Facebook after Thursday's announcements, my colleague Rafe Needleman nails it:

"For users, Facebook will, probably quickly, learn what each of us is likely to like, by watching what we do on the site. This will help solve a big problem on a Web overloaded with novel information: Discovery. By mining the "data exhaust" collected from the activities, links, likes, and so on that we all generate, Facebook should be able to predict, with increasing accuracy, what we're most likely to engage with, be it music or grocery ingredients.

Still, one unknown - a big one, potentially - lingers: The new Facebook Timelines could make some users uncomfortable. It's unclear whether they will warm to the idea of applications like those Zuckerberg talked about automatically taking and then publishing their activity data. Maybe Facebook is right about  this being an idea whose time has come and that the privacy squalls that so buffeted the failed Beacon project won't return.

In the meantime, Facebook is plowing ahead with the help of new partners - Netflix for video, Hulu for video, and Spotify for music - to build a matrix of Internet influence that we haven't seen until now. Disruptive, to be sure, and then some. It's a developing story that bears close watching.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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