Facebook announced earnings on Tuesday, and the key word was "billion."
$3.2 billion: Revenue for this quarter.
One billion views: A new milestone for videos.
And, perhaps most importantly, 1 billion users.
It's a number Facebook itself has already exceeded, and it's also the number that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set as a goal for Facebook-owned products like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger before Facebook attempts to "aggressively" monetize them and turn them into "meaningful businesses in their own right."
"This may sound a little ridiculous to say, but for us products don’t really get that interesting to turn into business until they have about a billion people using them," said Zuckerberg.
"It sounds a little ridiculous to me as well," says Nate Elliott, analyst at Forrester Research.
"The reality is Facebook didn't turn its primary property - the Facebook business - until it had about a billion users," says Elliott. "And I wonder if they're not using that as the benchmark for everything else they do."
But to understand just how "ridiculous" that benchmark is, you have to appreciate the sheer size of one billion. To do that, I called up my high school math teacher, Don Smith.
"It’s an incomprehensible number, Stan, it really is," says Smith.
The only way to comprehend it is to use a device to shrink it to something more manageable. For instance, consider an inch.
"A billion inches is over 15,000 miles," says Smith. Or about five trips from New York City to Los Angeles.
A billion users--that’s 120 times the population of New York City. To get that many users, you usually have to look at whole industries, not individual companies.
"For example, the toilet paper market is pretty universal, but nonetheless, it’s not a single supplier," says Roger Kay at Endpoint Technologies Associates.
There are a handful of businesses that sell physical products to a billion people - Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and so on. But Facebook has the advantage of a product it gives away for free, which it can do because its digital. "So how many accounts do you want to set up? As many as you want," says Kay.
The disadvantage of a free product is that you don't make money selling it--instead, you typically have to sell ads. This quarter, Facebook made about $2.37 in revenue for each of its 1.35 billion users.
So which companies would interest Mark Zuckerberg?
How many products actually have a billion users? It depends on how you measure.
- Facebook didn't pass the billion-user mark that long ago, and its biggest acquisitions, WhatsApp and Instagram, have a ways to go at 600 million and 200 million active users, respectively.
- PayPal claims to process 10 million transactions a day, or a billion every two years. But they only have 157 million active accounts. Snore.
- Amazon has inconceivably huge sales, but a piddly 244 million user accounts. Forget it.
- As mentioned above, there are several huge conglomerates that reach billions of consumers - Procter & Gamble claims to serve nearly 5 billion people - but it's unlikely that they produce a single product that serves a billion people.
- Google, one of Facebook's biggest rivals, is a contender. It was one of the first sites to reach a billion monthly unique visitors, and YouTube is there too, but it's not clear how many individual products would interest Zuckerberg. For example: Gmail had only 416 million users the last time Google reported those numbers, in 2012. Google Drive only has 240 million users.
- Apple is close too. There are 800 million iTunes accounts, a decent measure of unique Apple users across their product line. The app store alone has clocked 75 billion downloads, and Apple just sold their 500 millionth iPhone.
There's one company we're fairly certain meets Zuckerberg's billion-user requirement by any measure: Coca-Cola. The company moves up to 1.9 billion servings a day, and its namesake beverage has been around for 128 years.
At press time, it wasn't clear if Zuckerberg would be interested in turning Coca-Cola into a meaningful business in its own right just yet.
The American fossil-fuel boom has spawned debates on what to do with this wealth. Ohio finds itself in the middle of one right now. The state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, is proposing to raise oil and gas taxes, to ensure the riches don’t all go to workers and companies based out of state.
“His view is, this is some sort of a rip-off,” says Ohio State economist Mark Partridge. “That these energy resources are transported out of the state of Ohio, used and refined in other places. And all the profit and wealth goes to these other places and it leaves Ohio.”
By most measures, Ohio’s taxes on energy production are low. They’re less than 1 percent, compared to 7 percent in Texas, 11 percent in Wyoming, and 25 percent in Alaska.
Kasich wants to raise state taxes to 2.75 percent or even higher. Drilling companies threaten to leave and go to low-tax states. But that hasn’t happened historically. A study by Headwaters Economics notes “the academic literature generally disagrees that tax competition is important to oil production.”
“The decisions on where to drill are not going to be determined by comparing different states,” says Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future." “They’re going to be determined on a location-by-location basis, on whether a profit can be made."
Governments that tax oil and gas taxes use the money in different ways. Some, like Norway, store it away for future generations in sovereign wealth funds. Other spend it on roads damaged by drilling, or invest in education.
Governor Kasich of Ohio wants to cut taxes, which spreads the energy wealth. But Mark Haggerty at Headwaters Economics worries that makes the state budget more dependent on taxes from fossil fuels – a boom and bust sector.
“In fact, what you’re doing is actually creating a less stable tax base for the state going forward into the future,” Haggerty says.
And the future is the whole question: how to take today’s riches and plant them in the right place.
An unmanned rocket that was supposed to ferry supplies to the International Space Station exploded just after liftoff Tuesday. That has drawn attention to NASA’s growing reliance on private space companies to do its legwork.
In 2008, NASA was preparing to retire the space shuttle. So it hired two private companies to resupply the space station: Orbital Sciences Corp., whose rocket just exploded, and Space Exploration Technologies (also known as SpaceX).
The initial price tag was $3.5 billion. The idea was to both to achieve the space agency’s goals at a lower cost to taxpayers, and to help foster the growth of the commercial space industry.
To do that, NASA wasn’t buying a new space shuttle.
“What they actually bought was cargo delivery services, just like you would buy services on Fed Ex or something like that,” says Frank Slazer, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association.
Tuesday’s explosion may prompt concern over the increasing privatization of space. But industry watchers are quick to remind that NASA has always relied on the private sector.
“NASA’s never built a rocket,” says John Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University. “Rockets that NASA and the Air Force use have always been built by private companies.”
He doesn’t think the explosion says anything profound about this model of business.
“What it says is launching things into space is hard. And there will be unfortunately failures along the way,” he says.
The stakes are going to rise, though.
NASA recently hired Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the space station in a few years. (Of course Boeing, and its heritage units, played an integral role in building the Apollo spacecraft.)
Meanwhile, the commercial space industry has grown globally. It’s now worth about $225 billion, according to Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group. That figure includes commercial satellite launches and operation.
“Putting that in context,” she says, “the total amount that governments spend globally is about $75 billion.”
NASA is getting ready to spend more. It’s now in the process of awarding the next round of cargo contracts.
The Fed stopped buying bonds to help the economy recover from its worst disaster since the Great Depression. So we're taking this opportunity to remember what happened 85 years ago today.
October 29, 1929, or Black Tuesday, was the most devastating crash in the United States stock market history.
The number of shares trading hands on the New York Stock Exchange that day set a record not broken for 40 years. And they were trading by hand!
NK-33 engines, originally destined for a Soviet-era moon shot that never got off the ground and later used in the Antares, are suspect, some scientists say.
The Fed has been buying up bonds by the trillions since the financial crisis started in 2008. Today, it affirmed that it was going ahead with plans to end its third round of stimulus.
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