Thursday, February 2, 2012

One Per Cent - Status update: Facebook finally goes public

Jacob Aron, technology reporter
(Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

After months of speculation, Facebook yesterday officially announced its intention to go public with an initial public offering (IPO) aiming to raise $5 billion. In doing so, Facebook has revealed a number of details about its inner workings and plans for the future.
Paperwork filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) shows that the social network had 845 million active users at the end of 2011, up 39 per cent from the previous year. Over half of those (483 million) visit the site every day to generate an average of 2.7 billion "likes" and comments amongst their friends - there are over 100 billion friend connections on the site.
All of that adds up to $1 billion profit last year on a total revenue of $3.7 billion, making it more profitable than Google was at the time of its IPO in 2004. Unsurprisingly the majority of Facebook's revenue depends on advertising, but that share is shrinking, down to 85 per cent in 2011 from 98 per cent in 2009. Much of the rest is made from purchases through apps such as Farmville, created by social gaming company Zynga, which currently contributes 12 per cent of Facebook's revenue.
What about the future? Facebook plans to expand in countries such as Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. It also plans to take on China, where Facebook is currently banned, though it may find it difficult to agree with the country's strict controls on information. "We do not know if we will be able to find an approach to managing content and information that will be acceptable to us and to the Chinese government," it says in the SEC filing.
With people increasingly accessing Facebook on the go, the company will also try to make money from its 425 million mobile users - it currently serves no adverts in its mobile site or apps. The company is also worried about the risk of smartphone manufacturers moving away from Facebook integration - Google could choose to strengthen ties between its Android operating system and Google+ social networking, for example.
One aspect of Facebook's business that won't change however is its desire to gather increasing amounts of data on its users, as it is the aggregated data that makes the company so potentially valuable. "As our users maintain and expand their authentic identity on Facebook, they are increasingly choosing to share their interests and preferences regarding products and services. We use this information to improve our ability to deliver relevant ads that we believe are more interesting and compelling for each user," says the filing. But extra scrutiny could mean your data is more secure - as a public company Facebook will have to disclose any privacy-related investigations.
We don't yet know what the initial valuation of Facebook shares will be when they on sale in May, but if the predicted valuation of $75 billion to $100 billion is true then CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to receive up to $28 billion, making him around the ninth-richest person in the world.
Hundreds of share-holding Facebook employees could also become millionaires -  champagne and status updates for all, it seems.

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