Tuesday, May 17, 2022
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Facebook gets experimental with new apps to reel you in

Get ready for a flood of new Facebook apps. The social media giant said Tuesday it’s created a team, known as New Product Experimentation, to design, build and launch apps that give people “entirely new experiences for building community.” The apps could range from games to business tools. 

Facebook is housing the team in a new limited liability company, the NPE Team. The structure will encourage more experimentation, allowing employees to quickly alter apps or even shut them down if they fail to live up to expectations, Facebook said.

The new apps will include the developer name, “NPE Team from Facebook.” Some apps could be free, while others might offer in-app purchases, Facebook said. Apps are expected to hit Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store, as well as the web, in the coming weeks.

“Oftentimes starting small is the best way to make the biggest discoveries,” the company said on the NPE Team website. “We believe building without fear of failure is the only way to achieve success.”

The creation of the new team highlights Facebook’s efforts to develop features and services outside of its main social network, which has been embroiled in a series of privacy and security scandals and struggles to attract teens in the US. Outside of its main service and its Messenger app, Facebook has failed to develop popular apps on its own. The social network purchased the Instagram photo-sharing app and the WhatsApp messaging service. The company also successfully copied Snapchat’s Stories feature, allowing users to post videos and photos that vanish within 24 hours.

Apps developed by the NPE team might serve as a proving ground for Facebook, giving the social network a sense of what features excite its 2.38 billion monthly active users, many of whom are wary of change, before the company invests heavily in them. It could also help Facebook create a market for its planned Libra cryptocurrency, which it’s launching with partners in 2020, if it’s integrated as a payment method for in-app upgrades. Facebook is building a digital wallet for storing the currency and said it’s too soon to tell if new apps will accept Libra. 

It’s an open question whether the standalone strategy will work. For two years, Facebook ran a startup-like initiative called Creative Labs that encouraged employees to experiment. It created the news-reading app Paper, ephemeral messaging service Slingshot and group messaging app Rooms. None of those services gained traction with users and Facebook shuttered those apps. The social network quietly wound down the informal effort in 2015. Separately, Facebook launched a TikTok competitor called Lasso, but the app hasn’t caught on with teens.

“It is not a slam dunk that (Facebook) can come up with apps that drive new services,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “That will take a real understanding of the specific type of customer they want to reach and how well it is designed and executed.”

NPE apps may not be distributed widely, Facebook said, and some would be limited to certain countries depending on the service. Facebook wouldn’t say how large the NPE team will be or who will oversee the group. The team includes smaller groups made up of engineers, product managers and designers. It will sit within the organization overseen by Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer.

Facebook said data collection will vary depending on the app. Some apps could allow users to sign in through their Facebook accounts. 

The social network already collects troves of information on its users, which businesses use to target advertising. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook after revelations surfaced that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of up to 87 million users without their permission. 

Facebook’s terms of service and data policy will apply to the apps released by the NPE team. The company will also be releasing “supplemental terms” for the team in the coming weeks before the new apps launch.

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