How Facebook Gets to 7 Billion
Those were the answers. The questions, if you summon Johnny Carson's Carnac, were, respectively, "What is Facebook's goal?" and "What is Facebook's biggest obstacle in achieving its goal?"
China may be Facebook's single biggest obstacle in growing from 500 million users to 7 billion and beyond as it tries to gain adoption by every single person on the planet. Yet there's a bigger obstacle collectively: the other 4 billion people who are neither currently using Facebook nor living in China. How will Facebook colonize the rest of the world?
The question came up on the panel, and I had an answer. By the time Facebook has exhausted other courses of pursuing growth, it's going to go for its most ambitious marketing push yet: Facebook will give every person alive age 13 and up a phone.
Facebook will need to do this once its growth levels off, as it reaches somewhere between 1 and 2 billion users. Once it has signed up between 15% to 30% of the world's population, one of the most ambitious companies the world has known will need the mother of all stimulus packages. Here's how the phone will serve its ultimate mission:
Doing more with Zero: Facebook already has a service called Zero (0.facebook.com). Launched with more than 50 mobile carriers worldwide last month, it allows consumers from Anguilla to Uganda to access a text-only version of Facebook without incurring data charges. Viewing photos incurs data costs, but for no charge at all, users can post status updates and comments, send and receive messages, view the News Feed, and write on friends' Walls. Partnering with carriers this way still will only reach mobile subscribers, which falls short of Facebook's ambition.
The mobile flip: While Facebook reports over 100 million users of its mobile services today compared to an estimated 500 million users overall, the ratio of online to mobile users will quickly flip, especially thanks to carrier partnerships. That flip is already happening elsewhere. For instance, Mixi, Japan's leading social network, has three-quarters of its users accessing it from mobile devices.
One mobile per child: One Laptop Per Child is already pursuing $99 tablets, and the concept of "one mobile per child" is being discussed in various pockets of the web. What would be the cost of getting some kind of mobile device running Facebook in the hands of everyone? That's the ultimate realization of Facebook's mission to "make the world more open and connected."
Voices that care: If Facebook pulled off the feat of finding a scalable way to get billions of Facebook-enabled phones out to the world, it would still need to figure out the phone part. Here's where the next piece of the puzzle fits in: Facebook acquires Skype to enable free calls among handset users. That's just the beginning, as Facebook will pioneer voice translation software to allow someone speaking Ndebele in Zimbabwe to communicate with a Mandarin speaker in China.
There are still countless questions as to how this would work, and the business model is hardly clear-cut. Yet at some point, Facebook's growth will slow and everyone will wonder what's next. For Apple, the answer was the iPod, and then the iPhone. For Google, it's Android. For Facebook, it will also be mobile, but with even greater ambitions. Mark Zuckerberg's one person who can make a goal like gaining top market share in China seem trifling compared to the bigger picture.