Facebook acquires Face.com; reinforces platform, pads lead

Facebook gains facial recognition tech for tagging photos, but the real story is how its vertical integration is helping pad its lead -- and keep users' attention.

While the hype (and backlash) over the company's initial public offering continues, Facebook is using its infusion of cash to continue building out its technology platform by integrating startups that specialize in features that would reinforce it.

Fresh off its billion-dollar acquisition of mobile photo sharing service Instagram, Facebook has acquired Face.com for a reported $60 million. The five-year-old startup offers face recognition technology that makes it easier for people to attach names to faces in photos, on both desktop and mobile.

Clearly, Facebook sees an opportunity to give its existing, massive photo services portfolio a shot in the proverbial arm.

But the real story and context to the deal is that Facebook continues on its march, cash in hand, to vertically integrate smaller companies as it builds an all-encompassing platform. Facebook's success relies solely on its ability to keep users' attention; it needs to continually maneuver to stay ahead, or at least keep pace with, the leading edge.

In Instagram's case, it was clear that Facebook was moving to acquire a service that competed with, not complimented, its existing platform. (Hockey fans, think of it as a corporate cross-check.) In Face.com's case, it's a chance for Facebook to bring compelling technology to a wider audience. (Baseball fans, it's akin to the New York Yankees signing a player away from Cincinnati.)

Facebook is making a lot of moves in the imaging space -- it also recently launched Camera, its standalone mobile photo app -- but don't let that limit your understanding of the company's motives. If there's any service out there that can reinforce the social network's lead, it seems to have the appetite to acquire it. Like Facebook's inspiration Apple, a technology license often won't do.

An expensive strategy, yes. But a savvy one.