By Dan Farber
Facebook is now the lone wolf, the only major social network not to partake of Google’s OpenSocial APIs. This is understandable. A radical change of course is not easy to contemplate. Facebook is the social networking leader, not in raw numbers but in momentum, demographic goodness and potential. The company was greatly lauded for opening up its platform and social graph to empower developers with APIs and a markup language.
Now Facebook is facing the hordes, 200 million foot soldiers–members of competing social networks. Google, MySpace, Six Apart, Ning, Bebo, hi5 and other social networks are giddy with delight in that now, in the name of greater openness than Facebook and comparable functionality, they have a Trojan horse to stalk Facebook, which has been rapidly colonizing members across the globe.
Developers are obviously delighted because they can leverage their code across multiple social network “containers.” Users will far more utility as popular applications spread beyond Facebook, and more developers get into the game.
Facebook’s has some immediate challenges. From a press perspective, the company has not been very transparent regarding its thinking on OpenSocial.
Facebook’s official statement as of yesterday was:
Despite reports, Facebook has still not been briefed on OpenSocial. When we have had a chance to understand the technology, then Facebook will evaluate participation relative to the benefits to its 50 million users and 100,000 platform developers.
In fact, Facebook has been very much aware of OpenSocial within the last week and talking with Google’s OpenSocial team. Facebook team members attend last night’s Campfire 1, where OpenSocial was formally rolled out, but weren’t ready to talk to the press, somewhat like deer caught in the headlights.
In contrast, MySpace, which was going down a similar path to Facebook with its own APIs and markup language, found out about OpenSocial about 36 hours before it was launched, saw the light and created some compelling demos with Flixster. MySpace’s uphill battle to compete with Facebook for the most valued users just got much easier.
All of this is a clear sign the Facebook is carefully weighing its options, and unsure as to how to deal with the shifting landscape. This dilemma comes just after Facebook was celebrated for its $15 billion valuation and Microsoft alliance, a validation for 23-year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s crown as the new prince of Silicon Valley.
Facebook could continue to plow ahead with its own APIs and markup language, maintaining its walled garden approach.
Analytics firm Compete points out that Facebook attracts a different set of entrenched, core users than MySpace and other competitors. “It will be difficult for this group to leave, and questionable as to whether they would even want to,” said Compete’s Max Freiert.
Facebook members have strong loyalty to the service–50 pages per day per person on average, according to the company. That is a position of strength. Facebook has built a service that people are flocking to by the millions per month, growing users at more than 3 percent per week.
But a downside is that its competitors and developers will paint Facebook as a pariah hiding behind a walled garden.
This could impact how members of the community think about their social networking home base. The scenario would not be much different from a political campaign–one unintended, ill-timed scream and Facebook’s members could lose faith and move their support to another service, which have been newly empowered by the OpenSocial APIs.
It’s a tough choice for the young company. Funding is not an issue, but pride and doing the right thing for users are. Zuckerberg has said that not providing users with more control over their data on Facebook is a flaw in the service. That would indicate that more openness is good for users, and developers.
Bottom line, if the OpenSocial APIs give Facebook and its application developers what is needed to build great applications, then it seems like a no-brainer to grit their teeth, revamp the platform as needed and embrace the more open APIs.
This choice doesn’t mean that Facebook will end up with lowest common denominator or just me-too applications. The likely scenario is that social networks (the containers for applications) will develop extensions that leverage unique aspects of their platforms and provide some differentiation.
If Facebook has a significant competitive edge because of its pioneering development platform, then adopting OpenSocial makes less sense. And on a practical front, giving Google de facto control of the core APIs for user profiles, friends and activity streams will be a cause for discomfort. On the other hand, so far Google is taking input from partners (who are also competitors) as the API specs have evolved.
Anil Dash of Six Apart, a member of the OpenSocial fan club, sums up the bigger picture of what is going on:
It’s not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it’s oversimplification to say that Facebook’s API is the new Blackbird, or the new Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.
For reference, Google and others have been chipping away at the proprietary Microsoft iceberg, but it is melting very slowly into the water and continues to mint money for itself and its ecosystem of developers.