SAN FRANCISCO -- The hottest ticket at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain: Mobile king Mark Zuckerberg.
The Facebook chief executive, fresh off his empire-building move to buy popular mobile messaging company WhatsApp for $19 billion, took the stage at the largest mobile conference to talk up his vision for connecting billions more people.
Top of mind for everyone there: The 450 million users who come with Zuckerberg’s expensive acquisition of WhatsApp. Zuckerberg said Facebook bought WhatsApp because of a shared vision to connect the planet.
And, he said, he believes WhatsApp is actually worth more than $19 billion when taking into consideration its strategic value to Facebook and its striking growth trajectory. Zuckerberg says WhatsApp is poised to reach 1 billion users.
“WhatsApp is the most engaging app we’ve ever seen on mobile. It blows everything else away,” said Zuckerberg, in gray T-shirt and jeans.
But, he said, “it’s Jan Koum’s vision to connect billions of people. That’s what made WhatsApp a good fit.”
Zuckerberg and Koum, CEO of WhatsApp, both gave keynotes in Barcelona, and were the show’s hottest tickets though they did not appear together on stage.
The WhatsApp acquisition has raised concerns among some users that WhatsApp would become, well, more like Facebook. Zuckerberg took the opportunity to quiet those concerns, saying WhatsApp would continue to operate independently from Facebook.
“We are absolutely not going to change plans around WhatsApp and the way it uses user data. WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously,” Zuckerberg said. “They might use people and infrastructure to grow, but the vision is to keep the service exactly the same. They do not keep the content you send, and we’re not going to change that.”
But Zuckerberg kept bringing the conversation back to his efforts with the Internet.org foundation, a coalition of companies that has the goal of connecting people in developing countries to the Internet. Facebook formed the organization in August with a group of technology companies that include Samsung and Qualcomm.
“What we want to create is like a dial tone for the Internet, like a universal emergency number, basic services that we think everyone should have including messaging, weather, search provided for free with the ability to upgrade to use higher bandwidth services,” he said.
The effort won’t help Facebook make money in the near term, Zuckerberg added.
Among the initiatives Internet.org announced on Monday: It’s giving students in Rwanda free online access to educational materials and it’s working to bring Internet access to rural Indian communities.
Facebook also said it would work with Ericsson to create an Internet.org Innovation Lab on its campus in Menlo Park, Calif.
While in Barcelona, Zuckerberg is looking to convince telecommunications companies that he is a partner, not a competitor. He said he is seeking three to five phone companies as partners in his efforts to connect more people to the Internet.
“I want to show that this model works, that’s why we’re looking for partners who are serious about this,” he said.
Headlining the Mobile World Congress caps a remarkable shift in fortune for Facebook, which has gone from being behind the eight ball in mobile to running the table. It now gets a huge chunk of its advertising revenue from smartphones and tablets. And its acquisition of WhatsApp could help Facebook catch up in mobile messaging.
It is paying $4 billion in cash, $12 billion in stock plus handing another $4 billion in restricted stock units to Koum, co-founder Brian Acton and the 55 employees of WhatsApp. Those restricted stock units would vest over four years.
Zuckerberg did get asked one question he didn’t seem to like much: Will Facebook still try to buy Snapchat? The Venice Beach mobile messaging company rebuffed a $3 billion offer from Facebook.
Zuckerberg said he had no comment but, realizing the question would probably not disappear like a Snapchat message, quickly added: “After buying a company for $16 billion, you are probably done for a while.”