David Kirkpatrick's chat with Peter Deng about Facebook at Le Web last week looked, at first, like a ho-hum product announcement, but the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that it gave us an insight into what the Facebook of the future might look like. It'll be on your mobile - and it'll be the hub of your communications. Yes, Facebook is looking to reduce e-mail and SMS to irrelevance, and claim that online communication space for its own.
Deng was clear that Facebook is now a mobile-first company. Everything they build has to be focused on mobile, with a great mobile experience. They're still investing heavily in the website, but they're serious on mobile.
Mobile is fundamentally different, he suggested. These devices are always with you, they're interruptive and they're logged in as you. They buzz in your pants. They demand you attention.
Deng's product announcement that Facebook Messenger - what used to be its chat function, but which is steadily becoming an all-purpose SMS and e-mail replacement, with a touch of Twitter's direct messaging - can now be used without a Facebook account is another step on the service spreading beyond its core site. You can now use a Facebook product by shooting photos in Instagram or communicating on Messenger, without ever logging into the core site.
The implication? That Facebook is seeking to be a central point of communication for us. All three of its core services - Facebook, Messenger and Instagram - communicating. It's already providing all its user with e-mail addresses that can aggregate their e-mail communication into Facebook Messenger (mine's email@example.com, should you wish to contact me that way) - and pushing those e-mail addresses into people's iOS address books. For people who sink into that ecosystem, they can exchange information visually, in words and on mobile without ever having to touch e-mail, or SMS or traditional communication methods.
When Kirkpatrick asked Deng why they were doing this, he replied: "Because Facebook is about communication, and this is a really cool idea."
If I were a mobile network operator, I'd be sweating right now. Sure, Apple has had a go at the internet-based SMS killer with iMessage, but that's limited to iOS devices, just as its spiritual predecessor BBM was limited to BlackBerry devices. Facebook is building something that is on every mobile phone, but which is potential completely independent of them. You can swap device and operators without ever impacting your friends and contacts' experience of trying to reach you. It switches communication from being device-centric to being person centric, and your network - your social graph - is already locked away in the cloud, ready to spring into life on any device you choose.
Facebook is making a stealth pivot into a new part of our lives, just as its competitors are struggling to catch up to where it is now. Zuckerberg's baby is going to be a hard one to catch...