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Facebook’s earnings: Internet do-gooderism and ad gobbledygook

Facebook is really two companies for the price of one: A really nifty, visionary, we’re-going-to-change-the-world innovator and a mind-numbingly technocratic/grind-it-out money-making machine.

Let’s take the second first. The company reported full-year earnings Wednesday, and by any measure Facebook is an impressive business. Largely by selling ads that run on cell phones, Facebook’s 2014 revenue increased 58% to $12.5 billion. The company earned almost $3 billion. Nearly 900 million people used Facebook daily during December.

Unless you’re exceedingly interested in the intricacies of advertising technology, there’s almost nothing interesting about how Facebook makes money. Listening to a discussion of its financial results is a forced march through the muddy fields of organic impressions, increasing velocity of advertising efficiency, right-hand rails, and the like. In discussing Facebook’s desire to be a good partner to software developers, Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to the company’s efforts at building a “cross-platform platform.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, piped in that “our ultimate goal is to be the critical business partner to our clients.”

Yawn-inducing, perhaps, but powerful too. Facebook now gets nearly 70% of its revenue from mobile devices, up from nothing a few short years ago. Considering its rapid growth, it is astounding that revenues from ads that run on desktop computers are only growing at a 1% clip for Facebook. It’s worth repeating: Not very long ago desktop ads were all that Facebook had. Facebook also has a balance sheet nearly as big as its 2014 revenues: It ended the year with $11.2 billion in cash.

But wait, wasn’t there something about a vision and making the world safe for something other than efficient mobile ad units?

Indeed. Zuckerberg did something unique for an investor earnings call: He shared a three-, five-, and 10-year vision for his company. The three-year vision includes creating better services for people and, critically, businesses, while growing Facebook’s “community.” The five-year plan envisions making businesses of WhatsApp and Messenger, an acquisition and a separate messaging app, respectively. The 10-year plan involves Zuckerberg’s goal of helping every person in the world obtain an Internet connection (through his project) and then plopping them down into a virtual-reality world stemming from Facebook’s Oculus VR purchase.

It’s the kind of stuff that only a company that’s printing money from its gigantic audience can afford to think about.

Toward the end of the earnings call an investor asked Zuckerberg if it made sense to be spending so much money to provide Internet connections to customers who wouldn’t generate sufficient revenue for Facebook to recoup the investment. Why, the analyst asked, does this matter to investors? Zuckerberg’s response neatly summed up his thinking about Facebook. “It matters to the kind of investors that we want to have because we’re a mission-focused company,” Zuckerberg said. “Part of the sub-text of your question is that if we were only focused on making money we’d simply focus on selling more ads in the U.S. But that’s not the only thing we think about here.”

At Facebook (FB), they certainly think about making money. Indeed, when you make so much of it you also can think about creative ways to make even more, even if the payout is way off into the future.