Is $19bn the price of protecting Facebook from disruption?

In the New Normal the disruptors get disrupted. Facebook saw this disruption coming - but couldn't rise to the challenge, and has paid a heavy price.

There have been two Facebook announcements of late. The big one has got all the attention – as well it should. You don’t get a huge number of $19bn app acquisition deals right now, so people are going to sit up and take notice.

But there was another, smaller announcement, that when put in context with the big WhatsApp deal, tells us something about how Facebook sees the world – and how our communication infrastructure is changing. What was it? Facebook is killing its e-mail service:

Facebook is retiring its email service and has begun notifying users that all email sent to their address will soon be forwarded to their primary email address on file. Facebook users can turn off the forwarding feature, which is on by default.

Back when this was launched, many saw it as an attempt to bring all our e-mail into Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief has effectively hailed the end of email for the next web generation calling the system ‘too slow and formal’, while launching the social network’s new messaging service.

What’s interesting is that what’s described from Facebook e-mail’s launch is very much what Messaging services like WhatsApp have actually become:

Demonstrating the new tool – after making his own, apparently obligatory, “it’s not email” preface – Facebook’s director of engineering, Andrew Bosworth, pulled up his personal chat history with his girlfriend, saying that he was really jealous that the “next generation” would be able to see their entire conversation history with their own partner or friends.

The communication landscape is changing around us, and Facebook was right to predict that e-mail was going to lose some of its status as the centre of our communication life. My wife and I very rarely e-mail each other any more – much of our discussion is mediated through iMessage, which works better for the sort of on-going exchanges that make up the basic interplay of married family life.

In a sense, these two announcements mark the end of a complete reverse for Facebook. Once, it tried to bring everything into Facebook. Now, it clearly realises that it’s got to become a loosely joined network of apps. This seems to be a common theme of development on the internet: we go through periods of disaggregation and atomisation, and then periods of recombination. For a while it looked like Facebook was becoming a place where all communication came together. Now, apps have changed all that, and the services that make up social networking are atomising. The social networks are, in fact, being disrupted.

The really smart move – the one that protects Facebook from this disruption – is that the company saw it coming, and has bought a solution, just as it did with Instagram.

Pity it cost $19bn. But then, maybe that’s the price of the New Normal.