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Mark Zuckerberg turns to a key troubleshooter, Andrew Bosworth, for hardware success

  • Regina Dugan's exit as head of Facebook's Building 8 research unit puts Andrew Bosworth clearly in charge of hardware.
  • Bosworth, who once taught Zuckerberg an AI course at Harvard, previously led the company through the transition from desktop to mobile ads.
  • The company is far behind Google and Amazon in AI-powered hardware.
A LinkedIn photo of Facebook exec Andrew "Boz" Bosworth.
A LinkedIn photo of Facebook exec Andrew "Boz" Bosworth.

Mark Zuckerberg has once again turned to a key troubleshooter, Andrew Bosworth, to help Facebook out of a jam.

With Regina Dugan saying she will leave her role as head of Facebook's research lab, Bosworth is now clearly in charge of all consumer hardware products — from Oculus VR headsets to whatever secret devices Dugan's Building 8 had been developing.

The move underscores how far Facebook has to go to catch Google and other tech giants in building the next big computing platform.

Google's hardware product line, for example, now includes smartphones, laptops, VR gear, a home assistant and even wireless headsets that can translate 40 languages.

All of these products are powered increasingly by artificial intelligence, with many of them featuring the Google Assistant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has flirted with building a smartphone and is reported to be building a video chat device, yet the only hardware it has for now is a line of VR headsets.

Bosworth revamped Facebook's ad strategy for mobile

Zuckerberg's appointment of Bosworth points to the confidence he has in his former Harvard teaching assistant, who helped guide the company through a previous strategic challenge.

Five years ago, when Zuckerberg needed someone to manage Facebook's transition from selling desktop advertising to mobile ads, he tapped Bosworth, who is known for his enthusiasm and has admitted to once punching a co-worker at an event.

Soon after, Facebook began putting what it called "sponsored posts" in the news feeds of its users.

While some complained about the ads, which previously had been placed on the right side of Facebook (desktop) pages, they were a hit with advertisers and investors alike.

Since the summer of 2012, when Bosworth began overseeing its mobile ad product, the company's sales have exploded nearly eightfold and are seen hitting $39 billion this year.

Facebook shares, meanwhile, are trading at record highs.

But Facebook is looking ahead to a time when consumers use something other than a smartphone to run their favorite applications at work and home.

The company sees how Google has now produced not one but two generations of its own smartphone, the Pixel, and has begun to market its assistant, called Google Home.

Amazon, meanwhile, makes an even more-popular AI-powered assistant.

The departure of Dugan, who promoted experimental systems like mind-reading software, and elevation of Bosworth suggest Facebook has decided to accelerate its efforts to get more hardware into consumers' hands.

'Behavioral economics'

One possible signal to the company's plans is a comment Bosworth made on Twitter earlier this month, after Richard Thaler was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. Thaler is an economist who was once belittled by his peers for his view that raw human emotions, rather than rational thinking, drives economic activity.

"Behavioral economics has driven a lot of my thinking about products at Facebook, organic and otherwise," Bosworth tweeted, in a reference to Thaler's award.

One way of reading the comment is that Bosworth favors products that people actually use, driven by their human needs, rather than those that engineers merely think are cool.

Several days later, during Facebook's annual VR conference, Bosworth sent out more than a dozen tweets promoting the company's Oculus line — the only Facebook hardware products that consumers are using today. Among those tweets, Bosworth, a frequent Twitter user, pointed to a blog post from Michael Abrash, Facebook's chief scientist.

In the post, Abrash argued that virtual reality and augmented reality will "converge" over the next decade, creating experiences that will let users "mix the real and virtual worlds freely."

"Long but valuable read from our chief scientist on the future we are building," Bosworth wrote.

The reference to VR echoed some of what Bosworth wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 24, the day he was named to his new role, when he said he was "shifting gears to work on virtual reality, augmented reality and consumer hardware."

In that post, Bosworth remained bullish on Facebook's ad-targeting technology, which for better or worse has brought the company unwanted attention in the wake of last year's U.S. presidential election.

President Donald Trump's advertising manager has credited the technology with helping him win the contest.

Yet its use by a Russian propaganda group has prompted members of Congress to call for new laws restricting online political ads.

Bosworth, who has described himself (on Twitter) as "the leader of the ads organization at the time of the election," believes the technology is just getting started.

"I believe we are still only at the early stages of what personalized marketing at scale is capable of," Bosworth wrote in his August post.

As for his new job, he added: "I don't know much about consumer hardware. But I still believe in the power of human connection...I can't wait to get started."

If Bosworth can build hardware as powerful as Facebook's ad technology, Zuckerberg's faith in him may be proven well-founded once again.