When Google went public in 2004, I had an uncle who asked me if he should buy GOOG stock. My answer, "No way. They have an awesome product, but no good plans for turning it into a business."
Sorry about that, Uncle Mark. At least the advice was free.
Most of my family and friends have long since forgotten that horribly misguided prediction, and so now that Facebook is about to go public, I expect a lot of them to come back and ask me if they should buy Facebook stock. My answer will once again be, "No way," because unlike Google, Facebook doesn't have a great product, and it's long-term potential is sketchy at best.
Of course, now that the Facebook IPO is officially on the way, most of the tech press is fawning all over it with staggeringly exaggerated praise about it being a revolution and a watershed moment and lots of other craziness. Heck, yesterday Techcrunch even replaced the usual design of its TC logo with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's face.
Facebook has two things going for it right now. It's about to make a lot of paper millionaires and it will pad the pockets of day traders and Wall Street insiders when the stock opens with a big jump because of all of the initial hype.
Okay, Facebook has one other thing going for it -- a whole lot of users. And, I'll admit we should never underestimate the power of that.
Still, the tech world is badly in need of some perspective here. Let's keep in mind that most of the activity on Facebook is based around two things: photo sharing and gaming. Photo sharing is wonderful but it's not a very lucrative business (just ask Flickr) and the future of photo sharing is mobile since phones are becoming our primary cameras, and Facebook's mobile experience is abysmal (if I'm being kind). Facebook's photo sharing has succeeded in spite of its mobile incompetence, but only because right now it's the place where you can share your photos with the most family and friends.
Gaming is Facebook's other strength, and unlike photo sharing it is very lucrative. However, Facebook is entirely dependent on third party game makers, especially Farmville creator Zynga, which could eventually get tired of being a cash cow for Facebook (it's 12% of all Facebook revenue) and decide that it can make a lot more money and control its own destiny by going out on its own. Of course, the more likely scenario is that Facebook will take some of the money it raises from its IPO and use it to acquire Zynga and other game makers since they represent a major feature of Facebook and a critical source of revenue.
However, remember that gaming is a faddish and fickle business. People always get bored of games eventually and look for new games to play. If Zynga/Facebook miss a beat and another popular game pops up somewhere else, then people will jump to other games (connected to other social networks) and eventually drift away from Facebook.
Those are just two of the reasons why Facebook's long-term future is highly uncertain. Below is the rest of the list.
10 reasons Facebook's future is uncertain
- Its own users have very little trust in the company
- The site's ease-of-use is among the worst on the web
- The user experience doesn't translate well to smartphones and tablets
- Teens are jumping to other social networks now that their parents are on Facebook
- A lot of Facebook's stickiness is based on games from third party companies
- Photo sharing is a major part of its activity, but doesn't generate revenue
- It has already maxed out its user base in developed countries
- It's highly doubtful that it will get a chance to compete in China
- Its financials look a lot more like Yahoo than Google
- It has to fight the natural cycle of social networks dying and being replaced
Now, let me give Facebook a compliment. In spite of its convoluted user interface and promiscuous attitude toward privacy, it does have over 800 million users, and that's not purely an accident. I'd argue that one of the primary reasons for that is ridiculously simple: The site is always up. (Ironically, Facebook had a very brief outage on February 2, the day I wrote this. But, that was significant mostly because the site rarely ever has a hiccup.) Even when Facebook was growing at an insane rate, the site virtually never went down. And now that it's the most trafficked site on the Internet it still virtually never goes down, and it almost always loads very quickly.
Nothing frustrates and alienates users more than a site that is slow or fails to load. Facebook's site engineers are the unsung heroes of the social network's success. They had to create completely new technologies like the Cassandra database in order to keep Facebook online as it reached traffic levels that no site on the Internet had ever approached. Meanwhile, a competitor like Twitter that could have siphoned off more users from Facebook a couple years ago, sputtered and regularly died when it started growing at an exponential rate. Remember all the Fail Whales?
So, uptime and performance are two of the major ingredients of Facebook's secret sauce. However, the rest of the web is catching up with Facebook's technical wizardry and Facebook itself has open sourced its cutting edge data center designs. As all social networks become as bullet-proof as Facebook, it will have to compete more on its site experience and its mobile experience, for example. As a company, Facebook hasn't shown that it's very good at that stuff. Plus, it's going to have to fight the natural cycle of people getting bored of the activities on Facebook and wanting to start over in building their friend list on a new social network because they friended too many people and it's easier to simply start fresh.
I'm not saying Facebook is going to die any time soon. I'm not saying that it's not a wonderful way for you to stay connected with your family across the country or your old friends from college. I'm just saying that it's not worth anywhere close to the $75 billion it's being valued at in its IPO, because it's highly likely that all of us will be using a different social network 5-10 years from now.
I will gladly admit that I was wrong about Google's IPO, and if I end up being wrong about Facebook I'll admit that eventually, too. But, after going public, Google pulled off a major surprise. It unleashed something just as revolutionary as the search engine itself -- a highly-effective new way to buy and place advertising on the web. Unless Facebook has a multi-billion dollar surprise of that magnitude up its sleeve, then it is destined to become the world's most overpriced photo-sharing and gaming site.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).