In 2017, Andrew Bosworth found himself in a new job. After over a decade at Facebook and stints in charge of key areas such as the news feed and advertising, the company veteran was shuttled off to manage the company’s nascent hardware business.
Bosworth – known internally as “Boz” – had become one of Facebook’s most outspoken defenders as it found itself increasingly on the back foot. A year earlier he had written a controversial internal memo titled “The Ugly” appearing to argue that Facebook should pursue growth at all costs, even when it is used to carry out a terrorist attack. He had challenged critics of the company head-on in unscripted Twitter exchanges.
So putting Bosworth in charge of what was at the time a relatively small venture – Facebook’s sole gadget was its Oculus virtual reality headset, sales of which were meagre – might have been seen as a reshuffle to get ahead of a rapidly escalating PR crisis.
The company’s problems tackling fake news, mental health issues and violence were becoming more apparent, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal was around the corner. Facebook wanted political operatives like Sir Nick Clegg to tell its story, not engineers. But four years later, Bosworth – who has said that his explosive memo was merely to encourage debate – is at the forefront of the social networking giant’s efforts to reinvent himself.
Andrew Bosworth argued in a 2016 memo that using Facebook to connect more people was the right thing to do even if “someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools”.
Credit: GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP via Getty Images
Today, Facebook sells millions of Oculus virtual reality headsets and Portal video calling screens, with sales boosted by the pandemic. It is developing augmented reality goggles that project holographic images into the wearer’s field of vision, and wristbands that read nerve signals from the brain. This month it unveiled sunglasses that record video.
Last week, Bosworth was promoted to Facebook’s chief technology officer. The move was seen as a signal that the company is now done making amends for its mistakes, and is focusing on its next act: replacing the iPhone.
“We’re running into the limits of what these devices are,” Bosworth tells The Telegraph, brandishing his mobile phone. “In the last decade, if you want to connect people in new and exciting ways, the phone was the way to do it. [Today] the phone that you have in your pocket is similar to the one you had three or four years ago. There isn’t a new way that you’re connecting with people.”
Bosworth’s point is reinforced by the timing of the conversation: a few hours after Apple has unveiled a new line of iPhones filled with marginal upgrades.
Facebook's Oculus Rift VR headset is popular with gamers
Credit: Frantzesco Kangaris/PA Wire
Facebook Reality Labs – the official name of the company’s efforts in hardware and virtual reality – are dwarfed in revenue terms by the company’s giant advertising division. But it employs around 10,000 people, a fifth of its workforce, and is increasingly the subject of Zuckerberg’s attention.
It is easy to see why. Facebook has faced a seemingly never ending string of scandals, most recently a leak showing the company knew about the harmful effects on young users (Bosworth declined to comment on the reports, insisting it was not his area of expertise). But it is a rising force in hardware.
Its Portal video calling device was widely mocked when released in 2018, but sold out at the start of the pandemic. Sales of VR headsets tripled early this year, with Facebook’s Oculus taking three quarters of the market.
“We’re past the inflection point of VR,” Bosworth insists. “People who have critiques probably haven’t spent much time in the modern ecosystem.”
The 39-year-old says phones, like computers before them, will continue to be widely used, but that their limitations are being exposed.
Andrew Bosworth CV
“The phone will continue to be a tremendously useful device. But because it’s a general purpose device, it can’t do some things better without being worse than other things.
“In VR, in augmented reality, we’re talking about the idea that you can have people that you’re co-present with, who are not physically with you, but you’re all having a shared experience. Those things aren’t possible with a phone.”
Not surprisingly, usurping the iPhone would not be popular among Facebook’s Silicon Valley neighbour. Apple and Facebook have become mortal enemies in recent years. Tim Cook has used Facebook’s privacy scandals as a way to reinforce his company’s credentials, and introduced software updates that have hit the social network’s advertising revenues. Zuckerberg said this year the company was now its biggest competitor.
But Facebook’s push into hardware is not merely an effort to hit the iPhone maker where it hurts. Zuckerberg sees it as crucial to owning the “metaverse”, a term that has become increasingly fashionable among the Silicon Valley cognoscenti to refer to virtual worlds.
Bosworth is one of Zuckerberg’s key lieutenants in delivering that mission. Two years ahead of the Facebook founder when both were at Harvard, he helped teach an artificial intelligence class that Zuckerberg attended. He joined in 2006, two years after Facebook was founded.
But why should Facebook be entrusted with creating the next big thing after the smartphone? Many regulators consider it to be too powerful as it is, and it suffers from a trust deficit in some quarters.
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“We are relatively unique among the tech set, in that our focus is connecting people,” Bosworth says. “We’re one of the most popular products in the history of the world. I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that we’re eager to find more and better ways to help those billions of people connect.”
To that end, Bosworth is committed to the company’s devices being mass market, in contrast to Apple’s efforts to target the most lucrative consumers. “Every time you increase price, you decrease reach, and it becomes inaccessible to people,” he says.
Facebook will want to see an eventual return somewhere, however. Bosworth was the architect of the company’s emergency mission to make money from mobile adverts after its stumbling stock market debut in 2012. He cancelled a six-month sabbatical to help bring investors back on side.
Does that mean a dystopic metaverse stuffed with unskippable commercials beamed into users’ eyeballs? Bosworth bristles at the suggestion.
“No one’s proposed that, and I’m a little annoyed you would suggest that anyone had,” he counters. “Facebook’s business advertising is something I’m very proud of. The ads on Facebook are tremendously high quality … certainly relative to ads I get any place else on the internet.”
Andrew Bosworth, often known as "Boz", speak at a trade show in Hamburg, Germany in 2017
Credit: Christian Charisius/dpa/Alamy Live News
Advertising, it seems, will be at least one way to monetise the metaverse. “It certainly plays a role. I don’t know what role it’s going to play. It’s way too early to say that.”
Facebook’s journey to displace the iPhone faces perhaps its sternest test yet with the recent release of its camera-equipped £300 sunglasses. As well as a potential stepping stone to more advanced shades, its purpose, at least partly, is to move the Overton window; to make hi-tech glasses a little closer to acceptable attire. “I don’t know of a better way to learn about what society wants than to give it a product and have [people] use it or not use it,” Bosworth says.
The device did not get off to a perfect start, when reviewers observed its dim warning light meant subjects were often unaware they were being filmed. Bosworth says the company welcomes the feedback, adding: “We feel good about our answers. That’s where the scrutiny should be.”
The critics, however, much like the next smartphone-sized revolution, are not yet under Facebook’s control.