OpenSocial: Developers speak out

by Dan Farber

With Google’s OpenSocial plans out of the bag, I checked out how some of the chosen few–Slide, NewsGator, Ning and salesforce.com–think about the new APIs and how they plan to apply them.

Slide is the leading Facebook developer, claiming 63 million applications (SuperPoke, Top Friends, Slideshows, Guestbooks, SkinFlix and FunPix) installed. “So far we have ported several of our most popular applications from Facebook and MySpace,” Max Levchin, founder and CEO of Slide told me. However, consumers won’t get to play with those applications until December or January.

“OpenSocial is great. The user benefit is a shorter cycle before they see cool new apps and ways to spend more time on social networks independent of the network they are on,” Levchin explained. “The most powerful implication is for developers. They’ll have less worry about in terms of complexity and back end integration.”

On the technical side, Levchin said the OpenSocial APIs are well designed, with sophisticated distributed computing happening in the browser, serving applications from multiple sources, such as services passing through Google and Slide in a hi5-hosted container. “In essence, it’s pretty impressive,” Levchin said.

While Facebook is the only container for its applications, the Google approach is more open and generic. Will Facebook adopt OpenSocial APIs?

“I cannot predict what Facebook will do,” Levchin said. “They are in an enviable position. Facebook pioneered this and is the cause of a lot of application development. For a long time MySpace, through luck and serendipity, decided that embedding Flash widgets is ok. Facebook looked at that and said it’s great and entertaining but it doesn’t leverage the fact that there is more than one user, and exposed the social graph, an improvement over pure embedding of APIs.”

“Slide is a large developer. We can afford to do both [Facebook and OpenSocial apps] and we owe a lot of our success to Facebook. In general, our mission and stance is that as long as platforms are growing and vibrant and users are coming back and interested, we will put effort into it, independent of the standards they chose.”

Of course, the 15th ranking social network is not going get that treatment and smaller developer don’t have the resources, so using OpenSocial is the way to go for them, he said.

Levchin predicted that the OpenSocial APIs will provide a core set of functions, but that each social network will have extensions that expose unique features of their platforms. “Not every social network has the notion of different levels of friending and newsfeeds,” he said.

Will OpenSocial applications find the viral growth that characterizes many Facebook applications? “One litmus test is the standard Facebook set for how fast things grow–just add water and you have 100,000 users in a few weeks,” Levchin said. “How well this plays out remains to be seen. It will be a frenzy initially and then the platforms will fine tune the controls so as not to piss off users….that’s what could cause the APIs to change.”

For Levchin, the standards are less of an issue than monetization schemes. “Developers are not going to abandon Facebook. The not-so-subtle competition will come among platforms offering monetization for developers,” he said. “Whoever has the user base will attract developers.

Over time, the social networking space will resemble the operating system battles of past decades, with just a few large players vying for developers.

NewsGator created Didjahear!?, a social content application using OpenSocial APIs that grabs a selection of video, audio and graphic material from among 7 million stories that go through its back end feed processor. It is hosted in an Orkut container, which gets recommended content filtered by category and then can push it out to friends, who can add and share comments.

Brian Kellner, vice president of product management at NewsGator, compared the Facebook and OpenSocial development platforms. “It’s pretty hard to do Facebook development, and it’s intertwined with their platfrom. You have to use the markup language and services. For example, Facebook recently changed the invites works, so you have to change your application.”

“Google’s OpenSocial is more flexible and lighter weight, with HTML and Javascript in the container,” Kellner added. “At the moment, the Google APIs have less data–it will be trickier to get viral growth since there is no prompt to push an application to other friends because it doesn’t know who your friends are who don’t have it.”

Kellner said the APIs could become more functional if the demand exists. “OpenSocial will be able to answer other questions, such as what kind of activities have been done on a platform or it may know about calendar events and be able to pass on that intelligence,” he said.

In a blog post, Ning co-founder and Chairman Marc Andreessen said that Ning will aggressively support Open Social APIs in the following ways:

Being an outstanding container. Open Social apps will be able to run easily and reliably inside Ning social networks — all 113,000+ of them. Ning Network Creators will be able to quickly and easily add Open Social apps to their networks, and Ning users will be able to quickly and easily add Open Social apps to their profile pages.

Being an app publisher. Ning already automatically produces Facebook apps for every Ning network — specifically, video, photo, and music players — using the Facebook proprietary platform approach. We will do the exact same thing for Open Social — we will automatically produce Open Social apps for every Ning network.

At the launch event tomorrow, Salesforce.com will demo its use of the OpenSocial APIs in the “business” Web. The company is using a combination of its VisualForce and Apex code to create the container that allows OpenSocial widgets to run on the platform.

“If you are on Orkut and you see a great [SocialOpen] widget that shows who are your closest friends, we could use the same widget and drop it on an opportunity page [on salesforce.com] and see the same presentation but instead of friends it would be people most active on this sales deal,” said Adam Gross, vice president of developer marketing at salesforce.com. “The data is coming from salesforce, or whoever provides the container.”

“A developer can define what a friend means–you could say who are all the friends related to this opportunity. The sales rep could see the opportunity and the strength of relationships among the influencers associated with the given opportunity,” he added.

Dave Winer, who pioneered technologies such as RSS and SOAP, offered his perspective in a recent post.

Standards devised by one tech company whose main purpose is to undermine another tech company, usually don’t work.

In this case it’s Google trying to undermine Facebook.

And I don’t think it’s going to work.

What would be exciting and uplifting, a real game-changer — Internet companies giving users full control of their data.

When Google makes their announcement on Thursday, the question they should be asked by everyone is — How much of my data are you letting me control today? That’s pretty much all that matters to anyone, imho

In some ways Google is undermining Facebook by introducing open APIs that enables write once, play almost anywhere social network application development. It will unleash far more activity among developers and benefit users, but it’s not a zero sum game.

Facebook has tremendous momentum, as Levchin pointed out, and is creating ways to share the wealth with developers. Users haven’t abandoned Apple because it’s a closed box governed by Steve Jobs and Facebook users won’t run for Orkut, Plaxo or Ning unless they have a far more compelling proposition.

OpenSocial won’t give users control of their data, but it’s a step in the right direction. And, given that Brad Fitzpatrick, who co-authored the seminal “Thoughts on the Social Graph” now works at Google, there is a small ray of hope for liberation.

Update: LinkedIn will an OpenSocial mashup, Conference Calendar, which grabs the industry information from a LinkedIn profile, associates releveant conferences and lists people from other social networks who will attend.

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3 Responses to OpenSocial: Developers speak out

  1. […] Technology Blog added an interesting post today on gigatipsHere’s a small reading […]

  2. […] The Rest of Tech placed an interesting blog post on gigatipsHere’s a brief overview by Dan Farber With Google’s OpenSocial plans out of the bag, I checked out how some of the chosen few–Slide, NewsGator, Ning and salesforce.com–think about the new APIs and how they plan to apply them. Slide is the leading Facebook developer, claiming 63 million applications (SuperPoke, Top Friends, Slideshows, Guestbooks, SkinFlix and FunPix) […]

  3. […] Charlene Li wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptSlide is the leading Facebook developer, claiming 63 million applications (SuperPoke, Top Friends, Slideshows, Guestbooks, SkinFlix and FunPix) installed. “So far we have ported several of our most popular applications from Facebook and … […]

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