LONDON--These are tough times for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The economy is in the tank, Madison Avenue still doesn't have full faith in the social network's ability to generate ad revenue, and entertainment-industry analysts estimate that in a few years the 24-year-old CEO could be in danger of losing his title of "world's youngest billionaire" to pop singer Miley Cyrus.
But Zuckerberg lucked out on Friday with his keynote "fireside chat" at the Future of Web Apps conference. Interviewed onstage by conference organizer Ryan Carson, Zuckerberg wasn't subject to any particularly difficult questions (after all, he answered the "profitability" one this week), heckling from the audience a la South by Southwest, or otherwise awkward moments. The point of the talk, really, was just about what it means to be a developer.
"The audience is packed with people who build Web apps," Carson said as he kicked off the talk. "What's it like to grow your company and build a popular Web app?"
Zuckerberg, wearing sneakers and his trademark North Face fleece, said that it was his first trip to London since junior high and talked extensively about Facebook Connect, the data-portability technology that had just been demonstrated onstage by his colleague Dave Morin. "Facebook Connect is basically the next evolution of Facebook Platform, and the thing that I'm most excited about it is that it basically brings into parity what people can do on Facebook.com with the rest of the Web," he said.
But the company is releasing Facebook Connect, which is now in beta, more cautiously than with its platform predecessor, which had a wildfire debut that left the company "floored, in a positive way," Zuckerberg said. "We're having a little bit of a different process in terms of rolling it out because it involves people taking their information offsite. We want to make sure that the privacy and everything else is in order."
It'll launch in full in the "next few months," he said.
He also talked more candidly than usual about the shortcomings of the platform, and how it soon became a hub for goofy viral applications that users quickly started to find annoying. The redesigned look of Facebook pages relegates many of those apps to a separate "boxes" tab, which has irked many developers, but Zuckerberg implied that if apps are seeing a decline in use because of the redesign, they probably aren't the sorts of apps that Facebook envisioned as part of its platform in the first place.
More than anything, he continually stressed, Facebook is about sharing information and content.
"With the new design we're trying to do that with the profile," Zuckerberg explained when talking about sharing. "When we launched (the) platform, a lot of apps just focused on getting a box to be installed on the user's page. The issue with that is the app may never have been used by the user again," he said. Facebook aims to "incentivize" apps that encourage real interaction.
Carson's questions were, for the most part, not particularly challenging for the PR-groomed Zuckerberg. But he did prod the young founder into mentioning the longstanding rumors that Facebook wants to institute a payment system for its users and has been working on it for some time.
"Someone could build that, and there are definitely a lot of platform apps that have business models that are based on payments," he said and then paused.
"There is the rumored Facebook payment system," he added with a bit of cheek. "Who knows when it'll be ready...(There's) definitely nothing to announce yet."
When talking about the central importance of sharing to Facebook, Zuckerberg described how members are now willing to share much more than they were when the site launched four years ago. He compared it to Moore's Law, suggesting that the "exponential" rate of sharing could be charted and predicted when it came to future features that Facebook could add. One of those things could be location-awareness, which Carson asked about and which Zuckerberg implied in his Moore's Law analogy that the alleged exponential curve simply hasn't reached yet.
"There are millions of people who are using Facebook just on mobile devices, and location is a big part of that," was as specific as he would get.
He spoke much more concretely, probably because of the developer-heavy audience, about the "openness" issue. Standards like OpenSocial have been developed in the wake of Facebook's generally closed-off policies with its code and platform, and so far, Facebook has declined to support these or other standards like OpenID. Zuckerberg still would not rule it out.
"I don't know if I'd frame it as a concrete thing we haven't chosen to do; I would maybe say that there's a trend in terms of how things play out and we haven't done it yet," Zuckerberg said. "Openness is clearly a very good thing."
But he had some critical words for Facebook's open-source rivals. "For the developer platforms, in terms of the supposed 'open' stack and then the Facebook one, right now the feedback we get from developers is that people prefer a lot of our interfaces," he said. Eventually, though, he said that Facebook would extend its APIs so that third parties could implement the massive amounts of data on the site in one form or another.
In terms of advice for developers, Zuckerberg declined to really elaborate on what he'd do differently if he were starting the company now, or what mistakes he's acknowledged he's made along the way. But he did say that he prides himself on having a workforce that's largely staffed by people with technical and engineering backgrounds. "A lot of the people (at Facebook), even if they're not in technical roles, they have technical backrounds," Zuckerberg said. He added that the company's chief financial officer is one of them. "I think credibility is external but DNA is internal. I don't know that having a CFO that has a more technical background gives us more credibility, but I think it could help us make better decisions."
Carson asked Zuckerberg what he does to unwind when he goes home.
"I don't go home that often," Zuckerberg replied.