What the end of Facebook's Creative Labs might really mean for its app ecosystem

Shane Shick, FierceDeveloperYou can have one of the most successful mobile apps and in the world and it can still be hard to develop a wider portfolio that gains as wide an audience or monetizes well. Just ask Facebook (NASDAQ: FB).

CNET was probably the first to report on a decision by the social networking giant to pull several apps such as Slingshot and to bring its much-talked about incubation team, known as Creative Labs, to a halt. There were even some stories saying that trying to navigate to the Creative Labs page was resulting in an error message, which is not the most graceful way to wind down anything.

"The move marks a turning point for Facebook's app ambitions as it focuses on other areas of innovation," CNET said. "It's still building artificial-intelligence technology, drones to beam Internet signals to far-flung parts of the world and virtual-reality goggles. The company has also been steadily adding features to its primary social-networking service, such as live streaming and 360-degree videos."

I think this is really just part of the same growing pains experienced by other companies that own a mobile platform and attempt to develop both an ecosystem of third party developers while creating their own apps and games. Although Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) hasn't killed off Maps, for example, it's not as though it hasn't struggled occasionally to meet user expectations. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) might not be as successful with apps such as Play Books and Play Newstand if they weren't basically shoved down smartphone users' throats. And although it doesn't have its own mobile OS, make no mistake that Facebook's platform is becoming a key stomping ground for developers who want to reach one of the most engaged audiences on the planet.

The death of Creative Labs will not mark the end of Facebook's attempts to innovate in the app space, of course. In fact, you could argue that Creative Labs already created a lot of value just by putting out apps that generated so much conversation and criticism online and in social media. Things like Room and Riff, which were also shuttered, may not have grown as expected but they certainly offered a lot for developers to learn from and react against. Even if these apps only turned out to be thought-starters, other app developers may be able to carry some of the ideas forward in other forms that are more successful on Facebook and via traditional app stores.

Moving away from Creative Labs may also be a signal that Facebook will be investing even in more in cultivating relationships with developers who can make stronger apps for its platform than it could do on its own. The company has already offered key tools from Parse and React Native to help stimulate the app development community. Perhaps over time, Facebook's Creative Labs will continue to live on, but less as a sub-organization populated by its own employees and more as a manifestation of its developer relations efforts. Facebook is all about friendship and sharing. Its ties to developers have never been so important.--Shane

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