“Mark is fixing stuff.”
I’m killing time in the Frank Gehry–designed Building 20, whose signature feature is its soaring 434,000 square feet of open space, the latest addition to Facebook’s campus inMenlo Park, California. A PR handler is explaining why CEO Mark Zuckerberg is running slightly behind schedule for our chat. I express surprise. Mark still fixes stuff?
“To say he’s actively involved,” she confides, “is an understatement. He notices things that are broken before anybody.”
As recently as 2012, the year Zuckerberg set a personal goal to code every day, that might have meant he had detected something glitchy on Facebook’s site and was reprogramming it himself. When he emerges a few minutes later, unspecified stuff presumably fixed, we sit down on adjacent couches in a fishbowl conference room near his desk in Building 20, and Zuckerberg makes it clear that those days are gone. “If we’re trying to build a world-class News Feed, and a world-class messaging product, and a world-class search product, and a world-class ad system, and invent virtual reality, and build drones, I can’t write every line of code,” he tells me. “I can’t write anylines of code.”
The Facebook of today—and tomorrow—is far more expansive than it was just a few years ago. It’s easy to forget that when the company filed to go public on February 1, 2012, it was just a single website and an app that the experts weren’t sure could ever be profitable. Now, “a billion and a half people use the main, core Facebook service, and that’s growing. But 900 million people use WhatsApp, and that’s an important part of the whole ecosystem now,” Zuckerberg says. “Four hundred million people useInstagram, 700 million people use Messenger, and 700 million people use Groups. Increasingly, we’re just going to go more and more in this direction.”
To further grow these services and any others that Facebook develops or acquires, Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on three major technology initiatives. One is developing advanced artificial intelligence that can help Facebook understand what matters to users. The second is virtual reality, in the form of Oculus VR, the groundbreaking company that Facebook acquired in March 2014 for $2 billion, which Zuckerberg believes will be the next major technology we use to interact with each other. And the third is bringing the Internet, including Facebook, of course, to the 4 billion–plus humans who aren’t yet connected, even if it requires flying a drone over a village and beaming data down via laser. Given the robust health of Facebook’s business, Zuckerberg is comfortable lavishing attention and resources on these visions. Facebook gave Fast Company wide-ranging access to Zuckerberg, his senior leadership team, and others to delve into the company’s audacious plans to shape the next decade.
In the tech industry, there’s nothing weird about setting goals so lofty that they sound unachievable. Google CEO Larry Page, for instance, is so invested in the virtue of gambling on disparate, wildly ambitious projects—from self-driving cars to smart contact lenses—that he restructured his company around the concept in August, making Google’s core businesses a division of a new idea factory called Alphabet. Zuckerberg, by contrast, isn’t interested in doing everything—just the things he views as deeply related to his company’s central vision, and crucial to it. “There are different ways to do innovation,” he says, drawing a stark contrast without ever mentioning Page, Google, or Alphabet. “You can plant a lot of seeds, not be committed to any particular one of them, but just see what grows. And this really isn’t how we’ve approached this. We go mission-first, then focus on the pieces we need and go deep on them, and be committed to them.” Facebook’s mission is “to give everyone in the world the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” as Zuckerberg says, explaining that he is now spending a third of his time overseeing these future initiatives. “These things can’t fail. We need to get them to work in order to achieve the mission.”
When Facebook was morphing from Ivy League college project to Silicon Valley startup, Zuckerberg had not only “never run a company—he’d never been in a company,” marvels Marc Andreessen, the browser pioneer, venture capitalist, Facebook board member, and longtime Zuckerberg confidant. “He’s learned everything he knows about business in the last 10 years. And now he’s one of the best CEOs in the world.”
Whether because Zuckerberg, 31, started so young, or because he retains his youthful demeanor and gray-T-shirt work uniform, he has been underestimated for almost as long as his company has existed. Facebook wouldn’t work outside Harvard. It wouldn’t work outside elite colleges. It wouldn’t work among the general populace. It couldn’t topple MySpace. It couldn’t make enough money to justify its valuation. It couldn’t hold on to teenagers once their parents signed up. It wouldn’t matter as much on smartphones as it had on PCs. It couldn’t make enough money on mobile to satisfy Wall Street.
When I ask people close to Zuckerberg how, exactly, he has pulled off these achievements, I don’t hear a lot of anecdotes about him swooping in and personally making genius-level decisions that suddenly changed everything. Instead, they praise his inquisitiveness, persistence, ability to deploy resources, and devotion to improving Facebook and himself. He has a knack for carving up grand plans into small, doable victories. “Most of our conversation was about long-term strategy, and then we’d backtrack from there to what we should do over the next month,” says Bret Taylor, who worked as Facebook’s CTO from 2009 to 2012 and who was at the company when it corrected course after a famously bumpy first attempt at putting the service on smartphones. “It’s one of the main reasons why Facebook is where it is today.”
Zuckerberg “is a total inspiration in how much he cares about his work and in how hard he works,” says Chris Cox, who dropped out of a Stanford graduate program in 2005 to join the company as a software engineer and is now chief product officer—and is so integral to its culture that he still speaks with every new employee as part of his or her orientation. “For all of us who work with him, it’s like, Man, he is so good at improving.”
Sue Desmond-Hellmann is a Facebook board member and CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which puts her in close proximity to two prodigies who quit Harvard to seek fortunes out west. Both Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, she says, “have this sense of relentlessness. ‘Why can’t that happen? Why can’t we accomplish this?’ It can be fun to be around that. It can also be like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ ”
When I meet with COO Sheryl Sandberg, she shares a personal story of a family gathering involving the making of s’mores. It captures several of Zuckerberg’s preternatural gifts. “Mark said, ‘I’m going to make a marshmallow,’ ” she tells me in her conference room, which is adorned with a framed drawing of her as Spider-Woman. “I looked at my friend and said, ‘He’s going to make the perfect marshmallow.’ Because he’s going to be the one out of all of us who is going to have the patience. In order to make the right marshmallow, you can’t do it right in the fire, because then it gets burnt. You can’t walk away. You actually have to sit there for five to 10 minutes with the marshmallow above the flame, but not too close, so that it gets completely heated but doesn’t burn. And the only person who’s actually willing to do that is Mark. Because he is that focused and that determined. I’ve never met anyone with more perseverance than Mark Zuckerberg.”
In hindsight, there were two particular moments that have put Facebook in the enviable position of being able to pursue its most audacious dreams. The first was a recruiting spree back in 2007–2008, when the company concluded that it needed more players with serious Silicon Valley experience. A significant percentage of the current leadership joined during this time, including Sandberg, who came from Google to be the principal architect of the business. From Mozilla, the Firefox browser purveyor, Zuckerberg hired Mike Schroepfer—known universally as Schrep—who ultimately replaced Taylor as CTO.
“The amount of trust and bandwidth that you build up working with someone for five, seven, 10 years? It’s just awesome,” says Zuckerberg. “I care about openness and connectedness in a global sense. [Sandberg] has the emotional warmth and ability to connect with people that allows us to live that mission inside the company. She’s even better than people think she is.” As for Schrep, “he’s just extraordinary at the patience and composure you need for managing long-term projects.”
Zuckerberg, unlike many of his rivals, has been able to keep his leadership team stable. Their cohesiveness led to the second key moment: the Instagram acquisition and its subsequent success.
When Facebook announced that it was buying the photo-sharing juggernaut in April 2012, less than six weeks before its IPO, a flurry of articles followed with titles such as “Five Ways Facebook Will Ruin Instagram.” Instead, the deal became a model for how businesses in Facebook’s portfolio get managed. Zuckerberg left cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in charge, encouraged them to preserve their own culture, and gave them access to tools—from Facebook’s recruiting team to its spam-fighting technologies—that helped them get where they were planning to go anyway, only faster.
“Schrep and I work day-to-day, operationally, on how we build our team, where we hire from, organizational stuff,” says Systrom, Instagram’s lanky, bearded CEO. “Mark and I work most closely on product. And Sheryl and I work most closely on advertising and strategic issues around policy. Imagine getting to have Mark, Sheryl, and Schrep on your board. Many companies in the Valley would kill to have that. And we get it by default, which is pretty sweet.” Instagram’s user base tripled in the 10 months after the acquisition announcement, to 100 million monthly users, then doubled in the next 13 months. (It now boasts 400 million users.)
The lessons Facebook learned from the deal may have been as valuable as Instagram’s revenue potential. It began pursuing major acquisitions more aggressively—it acquired WhatsApp and Oculus in early 2014—and then found itself looking at its own services with fresh eyes. Zuckerberg hired PayPal president David Marcus to run its chat product, Messenger, and decided to remove it from Facebook’s smartphone version, forcing users to download a stand-alone app. “We were all incredibly uncomfortable with that,” says a former Facebook employee who was present when Zuckerberg explained his rationale. “But he had thought it through carefully, the core use cases and the competitive situation.” A little over a year later, Messenger’s active user base more than tripled.
Splitting Messenger off from Facebook let Marcus begin to build his own business model, one akin to China’s messaging behemoth WeChat. Messenger has its own app store, with partners such as ESPN offering animated GIFs, and a feature that allows companies (including e-commerce retailers Everlane and Zulily) to conduct customer service—from delivery tracking to returns—within Messenger. “We’re not in a rush,” says Marcus. “But over time, we can build a really good business out of these interactions.”
Three thousand miles away from Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, in an office building in New York’s Noho neighborhood that was once a Wanamaker department store, a researcher named Rob Fergus is showing me software designed to identify objects in a video stream. Computers have long struggled to learn what’s happening in video, which contains so much more data than text or a still photo. He points a webcam that’s attached to a laptop running his program at a remote control. The software, which is so computationally intensive that it causes the cooling fans inside his laptop to kick in at a full, ear-piercing blast, thinks the remote is a turtle. He focuses the camera on a computer mouse. Once again, it thinks it’s spotted a turtle. Only occasionally does it correctly identify an item.
Fergus looks sheepish. But the point of the demonstration isn’t to prove that Facebook is ready to roll out this AI feature, just that they’re working on it.
If you’ve ever felt like your Facebook News Feed is filled with people you don’t care about sharing thoughts you didn’t particularly want to hear, you’ll appreciate why Facebook is pushing to further the art of artificial intelligence. In its current form, the social network is still far better at collecting vast amounts of data than understanding what that data means. Advanced AI could help emphasize the stuff that’s truly relevant to you, keeping you on the service longer and boosting your attractiveness as a subject for targeted advertising. “Facebook is working to be at the center of the world of AI because it will affect Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger,” says Systrom. “It’s broadly applicable to all social products.”
LeCun, however, was disinclined to leave academia or New York. When Zuckerberg thinks Facebook needs something, though, he refuses to treat obstacles as obstacles. He offered to let LeCun set up Facebook AI Research’s headquarters in Manhattan and retain his professorship on the side. LeCun came aboard. Problem solved.
Because Zuckerberg would not be able to interact with LeCun in person on a daily basis, he had the AI researchers who did work at Facebook’s main campus sit near him so he could learn from them. “When we moved to the new building, we ended up being separated from Zuck by about 10 yards,” LeCun chuckles. “He said, ‘No, this is too far, move closer.’ ” And so they did. (This is a signature move that Zuckerberg uses to absorb new material; when the team prepared Facebook’s Timeline feature in 2011, he placed key design talent near his desk, and he seated Systrom near him after the Instagram acquisition.)
The mandate for the 50-person AI team is also vintage Zuckerberg: Aim ridiculously high, and focus on where you want to go over the long term. “One of our goals for the next five to 10 years,” Zuckerberg tells me, “is to basically get better than human level at all of the primary human senses: vision, hearing, language, general cognition. Taste and smell, we’re not that worried about,” he deadpans. “For now.”
In part, the AI effort is an attempt to prepare Facebook for an era in which devices from wristwatches to cars will be connected, and the density of incoming information which the service will have to deal with will grow exponentially. “There’s just going to be a lot more data generated about what’s happening in the world, and the conventional models and systems that we have today won’t scale,” says Jay Parikh, the company’s VP of engineering. “If there’s 10x or 20x or 50x more things happening around you in the world, then you’re going to need these really, really intelligent systems like what Yann and his team are building.”
But Fergus and his fellow researchers have the freedom to start small rather than think immediately of the massive data problems posed by services with several hundred million users or more. Antoine Bordes, who relocated from a French university to join the New York team (though there’s now a Paris branch because the city is also a hotbed of AI talent), is teaching a computer concepts such as “John is in the playground” and “John picked up the football” in order to help it learn to answer queries such as “Where is the football?” Everything draws on a vocabulary of just 50 words, a purposefully dinky number chosen so that researchers can tell exactly what’s going on. “This is not big data,” says Bordes, who is wearing a T-shirt depicting a robot boxing a dinosaur. “This is supersmall data.”
LeCun has given Facebook a lab with a strong universitylike feel. Rather than having to make sure their work lines up with Facebook’s product plans, researchers—many of them fellow academics—can pursue their passions while a separate group, Applied Machine Learning, is
responsible for figuring out how to turn the lab’s breakthroughs into features. “The senior research scientists, you don’t tell them what to work on,” LeCun says. “They tell you what’s interesting.”
Technologies incubated by LeCun and his team are already popping up in Facebook products such as Moments, a new app that scours your phone’s camera roll for snapshots of friends, then lets you share those photos with those people. “Most researchers do care about their stuff having practical relevance,” says Fergus, who is technically still on leave from NYU, where he worked alongside LeCun. “In academia, a great outcome is you publish a paper that people seem to like at a conference.”
LeCun’s work is directly affecting Facebook’s bottom line, in the form of better spam-prevention tools and software to verify that ads are up to company standards, a task that was once a labor-intensive manual process. “I joke that the lab has paid for itself over the next five years with work they’ve already done,” says Schroepfer.
Palmer Luckey and I are flapping our arms in adjoining isolation-booth-like rooms in Oculus’s quarters in Building 18 on Facebook’s campus. In the virtual-reality world we’re sharing, though, Luckey, the endearing 23-year-old wunderkind who founded Oculus VR in his parents’ garage in 2011, has transmogrified himself into a hovering, cartoony head and hands, and we’re playing antigravity Ping-Pong. Next, we set off fireworks together and he shoots me with a zap gun, which instantly shrinks me to the size of a gnat as he towers above me.
A few days later, when I meet with Zuckerberg for our first conversation, he’s eager to talk about Oculus Ping-Pong even before I begin asking him questions. As he delineates the pleasures that user-adjustable physics bring to table tennis, his expression takes on some of the same goofy glee I’d experienced. (Zuckerberg, a gamer himself, is a devotee of Civilization, a venerable game series that Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe worked on in a previous life. The goal of the original 1991 version of Civ—”build an empire to stand the test of time”—neatly encapsulates its appeal to the Zuckerbergian brain.)
Anyone who’s had his or her mind blown by a few minutes of Oculus time in a 3-D, 360-degree world can appreciate why Zuckerberg is grinning. But if Oculus was only about games, it wouldn’t be an obvious fit for his mission-first vision of Facebook’s future. His interest in VR dates back to his experience with, of all things, phones. When the modern smartphone was being born—Apple’s iPhone debuted in 2007 and Google’s Android in 2008—Facebook was a red-hot startup, but there was no way it could have written its own mobile platform from scratch, let alone persuaded the rest of the industry to adopt it. By 2013, when it had a bit more clout, Facebook createdHome, which slathered a Facebook-based veneer on top of Android. The notable flop reinforced the limitations of building on someone else’s operating system. “One of my big regrets,” Zuckerberg says wistfully, “is that Facebook hasn’t had a major chance to shape the mobile operating system ecosystem.” (The company has done okay on smartphones: Multiple studies show that Facebook captures more of users’ mobile time than any other service.)
Oculus, then, represents two big bets in one: that VR will be the next major computing platform, supplanting phones the same way that handheld devices usurped desktops—and that human nature won’t change. “If you look at how people spend time on all computing platforms, whether it’s phones or desktops before that, about 40% is spent on some kind of communications and media,” Zuckerberg says. “Over the long term, when [Oculus] becomes a more mature platform, I would bet that it’s going to be that same 40% of the time spent doing social interactions and things like that. And that’s what we know. That’s what we can do.” Already, Oculus helped out with Facebook’s new 360-degree video feature that debuted last September.
Before Zuckerberg’s vision can be realized, Oculus needs to start shipping its Rift headsets. The Facebook acquisition didn’t change the company’s near-term goal, which is to offer a version of Rift aimed at hard-core gamers. The closest Iribe has gotten to disclosing how much the headset will cost is saying that the all-in investment, including a PC, will be about $1,500. That includes an Xbox One gamepad, provided through a surprise deal with Microsoft. The Oculus Touch hand controllers, which are as much of a revelation as the headset and necessary for tasks such as wielding a Ping-Pong paddle, will cost extra and arrive later.
Oculus might have prospered as an independent company; among other accomplishments, it had already scored the most spectacular hiring coup imaginable by signing on legendary game programmer John Carmack (who helped create the landmark first-person shooter Doom) as its CTO. But like Instagram, it has benefited from Facebook ownership. “We have supercharged recruiting,” says Iribe when I chat with him moments after the June media event in San Francisco, where he showed off the Oculus Touch controllers for the first time. “We were 60 or 70 people when we got acquired. And we’re 360-plus today. It’s just incredible how fast we’ve been able to grow.”
Oculus has also taken full advantage of Zuckerberg’s penchant for strategic acquisitions. “We come to him and say, ‘Hey, there’s this brilliant group of computer-vision scientists, and if they were here and working on this feature, it might be able to land in the next product or a product in two generations,’ ” says Iribe, who has quietly snapped up five small companies since Oculus officially became part of Facebook in July 2014. “And he’s like, ‘Okay, let’s go do this.’ ”
As usual with a new venture, Zuckerberg is taking an uncommonly patient approach to making money from Oculus. “Over the long term, we need to make sure it’s sustainable,” he says. “But sustainable could mean selling it at break-even and having a business around software or some other part of the platform, which is actually something that we’re much better attuned to.”
For Facebook, judging Oculus based on its potential is second nature. “We’ve got a five- to 10-year R&D road map for Oculus that’s very clear about what problems we need to go take down and how we’re going to do it,” Schroepfer tells me. “And so we’re just going to build better and better sensors and hardware and software that’s going to allow you to do more and more and that’s going to create these amazing experiences.”
Not everyone is as convinced of Zuckerberg’s VR dreams. Wall Street, for one, is having trouble peering quite so far ahead. “I worry a bit about expectations,” says Colin Sebastian, senior analyst at Robert W. Baird. “Consumers have dreams of seamlessly entering these interactive environments and interacting with friends. The tech is early and the virtual environments are very basic.” And the competition is intense. Sony andHTC also have VR headsets coming out next year. Then there’s Google, with itsCardboard viewer that offers VR using just a smartphone and a paper case for as little as $15. Cardboard is nowhere near as compelling as Oculus, but it’s cheap, approachable, and available right now.
Zuckerberg has bigger ideas in mind for what Oculus could become. When he discusses the company, he consistently refers to “VR and AR,” the latter being augmented reality, the technology that layers virtual objects into the real world. (Imagine a fictional character appearing in front of you to interact with you in your home.) AR underpins Microsoft’s forthcoming HoloLens product as well as the stealthy, much-buzzed-about Magic Leap. In October, both Zuckerberg and Iribe confirmed publicly that Oculus is indeed working on augmented reality. If Oculus can squeeze its technology into something that looks more like a pair of glasses and lets you see the real world as well as the virtual one, “it could be the last electronics device that a lot of people need to buy,” Zuckerberg muses. And this time around, Facebook would be the company selling it.
Facebook has succeeded because it has continuously found a way to scale—its service, its business, and its ambitions. “The Facebook of today is in so many ways exactly like the Facebook of 2008,” says VP of people Lori Goler, who joined the company that year, when it had a mere 80 million users and less than one-twentieth its current head count. “The culture is the same. The values are the same. Mark’s tremendous vision, intellect, learning mind-set—all of that is the same. What’s changed is we have a lot more resources now in terms of the business growing and the number of people we have to help us move the world forward.”
With the company now reaching almost 1.5 billion people, Zuckerberg can raise that last part—moving the world forward—to a new level. In August 2014, he appointed product VP Naomi Gleit, one of the company’s longest-serving employees (she joined in 2005), to manage dozens of staffers dedicated exclusively to implementing functionality that helps Facebook members do good. A donation tool, launched last year, allows users to respond to disasters by giving money, a task that—Facebook being Facebook—it sees as an engineering problem that should be attacked through continuous iteration. “I geek out on this, but with the Ebola campaign we asked users to select a donation amount,” explains Gleit. “We also asked them to pick a specific charity that they wanted to donate to.” This proved confusing to users and did not produce as much giving as Facebook hoped. “With the Nepal campaign we reduced it from five steps to two,” Gleit says. “We had a preselected donation amount, and we chose multiple charities and then distributed among them equally.”
Tools like this “maybe only can happen on Facebook, or can happen uniquely well on Facebook,” says Zuckerberg (who, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician, has given $1.6 billion to various causes). “I think about the organ-donation listing work that we did. The Safety Check stuff that we’ve done, where 150 million people were notified of their friends being safe in the [Nepal] earthquake. You can only do that if you’ve mapped out what people’s relationships are, and you have a sense of where people are in the world, and you have a tool that they’re checking every day.” He’s right: Facebook can indeed do things no other company can.
But it can’t do anything for people who remain disconnected from the digital world. “If we really want to connect everyone in the world and give everyone the ability to have a voice and share what they want with the people around them, then you can’t just build the biggest Internet service,” Zuckerberg says. “You also have to help grow the Internet.” In 2013, Facebook enlisted Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, and other tech giants to help it found Internet.org, the global-connectivity initiative dedicated to bringing the Internet to the 60% of people worldwide who aren’t yet online.
The effort is a hybrid of short-term altruism and long-term capitalism. “The fundamental connectivity problem is a financial one,” Sandberg explains. “For 90% of the people, it’s cost. The World Bank puts absolute poverty at about $1.25 a day. One in six people live under that. If you’re the average connected Facebook user in the U.S., you spend a dollar a day implicitly on data. So the business models have to change, and the cost needs to go down. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“It’s not lost on our businesses that as economic standings improve, there will be opportunities, but that’s not the initial goal,” adds Matt Grob, CTO of Qualcomm. “We’ve seen throughout the world that when you provide improved connectivity, people are more able to educate their children and participate in political and government activities and sell their wares or find jobs.”
Internet.org’s first effort—an app offering free access to Facebook, news, search, job listings, and other services—is live in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa, and 24 other countries. Facebook has deployed it in collaboration with local wireless carriers, and 15 million people are using it. But the app has received pushback on multiple grounds, particularly for offering only certain curated services rather than the full, unbridled Internet—a violation, critics say, of net neutrality principles.
The debate has been particularly heated in India: Investor Mahesh Murthy charged that giving poor people free access to a sliver of the web amounted to “economic racism,” and several major media companies that had joined the effort pulled out.
For Facebook, releasing something, gauging reaction, and then tweaking as necessary is not only normal but also a badge of honor—after all, one of the company’s guiding principles is “Done is better than perfect.” When I ask Zuckerberg about the controversy, he says, “Internet.org is working. We’ve learned a lot from our efforts already. We’ve listened to a lot of feedback from people in the communities we’re connecting and have responded by making significant changes to the program.” Among other adjustments, it’s made the app more secure and private and now lets any third-party service submit itself for inclusion, subject to technical restrictions. Given time, the company might get the Internet.org app to a place that’s relatively uncontroversial. Even now, it has its allies. “I firmly believe that at this point, some Internet is better than no Internet,” says Helani Galpaya, CEO of LIRNEasia, a communications think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
For the places on earth where there’s currently no Internet, Facebook and Internet.org are tackling that issue too. In terms of land area, explains Yael Maguire, director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, “there’s only 10% of the world that is not able to connect if they pulled out a phone. The focus for this lab, going back to the mission of the company, is to figure out how we can connect the last 10%.”
Talking with Maguire, you quickly see why Zuckerberg entrusted him with this challenge: The way he rattles off stats and facts and calmly deconstructs goals that sound nearly impossible is reminiscent of his boss’s own manner. Facebook opened the Connectivity Lab in March 2014, and Maguire and his team have concluded that the answer to their challenge is a drone—although Maguire prefers the less-politicized (though not exactly catchy) term HAPI Link, which is short for high-altitude platform Internet link. By charging an unmanned aerial vehicle’s battery via solar power and flying it at 60,000 to 90,000 feet, above weather and conventional aircraft, the company believes it could efficiently send high-speed Internet access down to where it is needed via laser.
Facebook began the project with more hardware engineering experience than you might imagine. It started accumulating this more than a half-decade ago, when execs decided that the best way to deliver Facebook reliably and efficiently to hundreds of millions of people was to construct its own data centers and fill them with its own servers. That path led to the Open Compute Project, Maguire’s purview at Facebook prior to the Connectivity Lab, which created power-efficient, easy-to-repair servers that the company could install by the thousands in data centers located everywhere from Prineville, Oregon, to Luleå, Sweden. Rather than treat its designs as proprietary, Facebook shared them with the rest of the industry via a not-for-profit that grew to include support from Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, and Microsoft, among others.
“When I joined, we didn’t have mechanical engineers,” says Open Compute Project Foundation board member Frank Frankovsky, who headed hardware design for Facebook’s servers before leaving in 2014 to cofound a storage startup. “We hired some of the best in the world. And guess what? Drones need mechanical engineers, too.”
The company acquired instant expertise in unmanned aeronautics in March 2014 by plunking down $20 million for Ascenta, a U.K.–based startup founded by Andrew Cox, whose previous efforts included a military drone that set a world record by staying aloft for almost two weeks.
Fourteen months after the Ascenta acquisition, Facebook announced that it had a full-scale prototype, dubbed Aquila and crafted from ultralightweight carbon fiber. An empty next-generation Boeing 737-600 airliner weighs upwards of 80,000 pounds and has a 113-foot wingspan; Aquila has a 138-foot wingspan, yet weighs only 880 pounds. The company plans to begin test flights by the end of 2015. Once the planes are manufactured, Facebook plans to partner with local telcos to deploy them.
For all the quick progress the Connectivity Lab has made, much remains to be done. It’s still developing the battery technology necessary to keep the drone in the air for three months, the company’s goal. And though it’s figured out how to use lasers to transmit data at blistering speeds in the tens of gigabits per second, thanks to technology borrowed from Facebook’s data centers, it is still ironing out the details of drone-to-ground communication.
Then there are the FAA regulations, which require that every drone have a dedicated pilot on the ground controlling it, a restriction that Maguire says would make Aquila economically unworkable (the same is true of Google’s Project Loon Internet balloons; the two fierce competitors are collaborating to work through some of the policy implications). The solution? Computer science. “We need good machine-learning algorithms and control algorithms,” Maguire says, “to make it so that you have 1,000 planes per pilot or . . . I don’t know what the number is, but somewhere between 25 and 1,000.”
Zuckerberg, who personally researched and wrote a meaty, unsigned Facebook white paper on the state of connectivity, is, as usual, unfazed. And with 54% of the voting power of Facebook stock in his control, bouncing ideas off his board of directors is as close as he ever gets to seeking permission for his plans. “The myth is that Mark makes decisions and informs the board,” says director Andreessen. “The reality is that we have very detailed discussions.”
As Zuckerberg recalls, the board asked him, “ ‘You’re going to spend how many billions of dollars on this? And how is this going to make money?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a direct plan now, but I just believe that if we connect these folks it will be good. And it will help those economies grow. And those people have better lives. And I think some portion of that will come back to us over some period of time.’ ”
Zuckerberg has earned the right to trust his gut. “At the beginning of Facebook, I didn’t have an idea of how this was going to be a good business,” he tells me. “I just thought it was a good thing to do.” He pauses. “Very few people thought it was going to be a good business early on, which is why almost no one else tried to do it.”
Today, everyone understands: Not worrying about whether Facebook was a good business turned out to be a great way to do business. Zuckerberg has recalibrated his ambitions accordingly. As Andreessen tells me, “This is a guy who’s 31. He’s got a 40- or 50-year runway. I don’t even know if there’s a precedent.”