How Facebook Can Save Face

November 16, 2007

 

By Josh Quittner

It looks inevitable that Facebook will move away from its proprietary platform to the open platform of OpenSocial. Indeed, sources tell me that representatives from Facebook and Google (GOOG) met for the first time late yesterday afternoon. And already, Facebook investor and board member Jim Breyer is indicating that the social network would be willing to join the Everybody-but-Facebook Alliance.

Meanwhile, a favorite parlor game yesterday afternoon among pundits here in Techland was playing “What Should Facebook Do?” — though most of the people I spoke to were unwilling to go on the record. Virtually everyone’s answers however, boiled down to three options:

1. Do nothing. Facebook has a surprising amount of power in this relationship. It has 50 million members and continues to grow. As long as that’s the case, developers will continue to craft apps in FBML, its proprietary platform language.

2. Surrender, totally and at once. Converting Facebook’s platform to open HTML isn’t difficult from a programming standpoint or particularly time-consuming. Besides, developers will love it. Many have privately griped that Facebook’s platform is too gnarly and they look forward to simple HTML and Javascript. And no one I’ve spoken to can find any real problem with this shift from Facebook’s perspective — indeed, the move
should benefit Facebook since its members will be able to stay put, where FB can serve ads at them, while doing more outside the walls of FB.

3. Some combination of 1 & 2.

One person who was willing to go on the record was John Lilly, COO of the Mozilla Corporation, whom I had dinner with last night. Who better to talk about the virtues
of openness? Lilly, in fact, made me think that Option 3 was the smartest way to go. If he were running Facebook, he said, “I would not let Google take the ‘open’ mantle from the world.” He said that if Facebook decides that it needs to move from FBML to HTML — “and I’m not saying I’d necessarily do that if I were Facebook.” But if he did, “I’d cause Google some problems first.”

How? “If I were Facebook, I wouldn’t let Google say, ‘We are the Web.’ I’d call b.s. on them,” Lilly said. OpenSocial isn’t open! It’s a Google-run alliance; Google is calling the shots and is in charge of running the thing. But that’s kind of bogus since theoretically, it
could cause OpenSocial to move in ways that benefited it. True open standards initiatives tend to be run by open boards.

Of course, the down side to working with open-standards boards is they tend to move very slowly. Google is known for having little patience for that sort of thing.

One person I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous because he is close to the current action, said challenging Google on whether OpenSocial was truly open was a red herring: “It’s a false challenge,” this person argued. “Even if Google has significant control over the API, the way it’s inevitably going to get controlled in reality is by the interoperable implementations that that people actually use. Interoperability itself will be the glue that keeps it from becoming proprietary. This is a dynamic that has worked very well for Internet standards over the years including HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP itself, despite some very large and dominant vendors who would have preferred to take control of things like those. ” He also referenced this Anil Dash piece, which provides all the ammo you need to support the inevitability of Option 2.

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The OpenSocial Business Model: Will the biggest social containers win?

November 2, 2007

By David Berlind

I asked two questions during the Q&A session in today’s announcement between Google and MySpace that MySpace would be embracing Google’s recently announced OpenSocial framework of APIs, with executives from both companies. The first question (which I’m really still waiting for an answer on) had to do with how two or more social networking sites will handle the thorny challenge of reconciling dissimilar identity management systems (when the integration involves the exchange of personal profile data). You can see in that post what some possible answers are, but what’s not clear is how, in the demonstration given, unique MySpace IDs are mapped to unique Flixster IDs (the demo involved the incorporation of Flixster social movie reviewing service directly onto MySpace profiles).

Another question I asked had to do with business models in an OpenSocial world. I probably didn’t phrase it during the press conference as well as I should have. But going back to the example of how OpenSocial results in the embedding of Flixster functionality into larger “social containers” like MySpace; It occurs to me that, to the extent the exporter of functionality (Flixster in the demo example) relies on advertising as a business model, the idea that a lot of people might begin to experience an exporter’s content through a container (where the container gets to serve the advertising instead of the exporter) could result in a cannibalization of the exporter’s traffic (and therefore, its ad revenues). Meanwhile, the container (MySpace in this case) benefits, doesn’t it? After all, using the demo as the example, MySpace gets to serve advertising around Flixster’s content. Today, lots of sites (eg: FaceBook) go out of their way to prevent other sites from using HTML’s frames to frame their content and serve their own ads against that content (FaceBook for example purposely “busts” HTML frames).

Therefore, could the OpenSocial network lead to a world where the biggest and mightiest “social containers” win? As you can hear in the full audio podcast we have of the press conference, Google CEO Eric Schmidt answered that question as follows;

It depends on your view of how network effects happen and whether you think a single dominant player comes out in any of these spaces. The history of the Web says that that’s not the scenario that will happen. The history of the Web says that there is enormous diversity in what people are interested in and that people who are willing to take a bet on an open platform whether its a developer or leading site like MySpace get the benefit of a larger pie. It does not end up as a zero sum game. Your question can be rephrased in exactly the same question we asked 20 years ago and 10 years ago and history says that the Internet wins and that the principles of openness; that people can extend things; that in fact they end up winning because the pie gets so much larger in all scenarios.

Given the way FaceBook has come on so strong in the last few months, it would be hard to argue with the idea that no single dominant player will ever emerge so long as the platform is open. But what about a small handful of dominant players like Google, FaceBook, and MySpace. Yes, OpenSocial is also about unlocking whatever profile data you have in your MySpace vault and making it portable to other social networks.

But how often will people really switch after they’ve invested so much time in building their online personas in a MySpace, a FaceBook, or both? Maybe they’ll do it, but my sense is that they won’t do it often or lightly in which case only a few will get to rise to the top. Put another way, Flixster may indeed be a container as much as it is an exporter of data to other containers. But in which direction will most of the data flow? To or from Flixster? My sense is that people will lean in the direction of uber-containers like MySpace and FaceBook (FaceBook has not announced support for OpenSocial) to be their primary containers and specialty function sites like Flixster to serve up data into their containers.

I’m not saying that sites who primarily end up in the role of serving data to larger containers can’t win. But, if you ask me, the existence and adoption of OpenSocial will force many advertising-driven sites back to square one where they’ll have to think hard about how they’ll sustain themselves while also participating. One thing is for sure. Much the same way a day doesn’t go by when some company doesn’t carve out a niche in the FaceBook universe for itself (knowing full well that FaceBook is where the sunshine is right now), support of OpenSocial will be a checklist item for any site that’s in a position to serve data into the larger container sites. Those sites may not realize it right now. But when Google turns on its container (and you know it’s gotta have one coming or it wouldn’t be doing this), a lot of people will have their moment of clarity.

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Facebook’s dilemma: To be OpenSocial or not to be

November 2, 2007

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.

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Take That, Facebook!

November 2, 2007

By Wendy Tanaka

Google got back at Facebook on Thursday, announcing that MySpace has joined the growing ranks of social networks that have committed to use its new platform for developers of applications for the sites.

The addition of the News Corp. social network heaps pressure on Facebook–which recently chose Microsoft over Google to be an equity holder in the company–to sign on to the new set of standards, dubbed OpenSocial. With MySpace, developers gain instant access to the world’s largest social network with 115 million users. Facebook, which rolled out its own developer platform last spring, has 51 million users, less than half of MySpace’s members.

At a press conference to announce the partnership, Google and MySpace executives declined to comment on whether Facebook will join OpenSocial. Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google, assured reporters gathered at the Internet giant’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters that the company has reached out to every major social network. “We want to see it adopted by everyone,” he said. “We’re not announcing further partnerships now. We anticipate more momentum now.”

MySpace Chief Executive Chris DeWolfe is confident the new platform will “become the de facto standard” for application developers.

Google had been expected to officially announce the OpenSocial platform Thursday, but reports about it surfaced Wednesday.

OpenSocial will allow developers to build tiny applications that can be used across many social networks, boosting traffic and advertising on their sites. Google and MySpace said the main benefit of the platform to developers is that it standardizes how applications are created.

“Not rebuilding and rebuilding on different standards … will be great for developers and end users,” said DeWolfe, who took part in the press conference at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. “One of the big trends on the Internet is that users want to consume content when they want it and how they want it.”

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said Google and MySpace have been working together on the platform for more than a year. It had been rumored, however, that MySpace would launch its own developer platform.

Executives declined to comment on how all the companies that have said they will use the standards, which include Friendster, Hi5, LinkedIn and more than a dozen other social networks, will make money from the platform.

At the conference, Joe Kraus of Google’s JotSpot wiki product said applications embedded on MySpace Web pages, for example, will foster “more interaction on MySpace, which means more time spent on the site and more ad revenues.”

Questions about privacy were also raised. Joe Greenstein, chief executive of applications developer Flixster, another partner, said Google doesn’t have access to partners’ user data. “Google is spearheading the initiative, but Google doesn’t touch the data, doesn’t own it.”

Developers were expected to gather at the Googleplex on Thursday night to test their applications on Google’s Orkut social network.

Some of these developers might also be building applications for Facebook. But if Google’s platform is easy to use, these developers might be tempted to pour their hearts and energies into one platform more than another.

Mark Zuckerberg, are you paying attention?

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MySpace Joins Google Alliance to Counter Facebook

November 1, 2007

By MIGUEL HELFT and BRAD STONE

MySpace and Bebo, two of the world’s largest social networking sites, today joined a Google-led alliance that is promoting a common set of standards for software developers to write programs for social networks.

The alliance now presents a powerful counterweight to Facebook, which, after opening up its site to developers last spring, has persuaded thousands of them to create programs for its users. The addition of MySpace, the world’s largest social network, and Bebo, the No.1 site in Britain, could also put pressure on Facebook to drop its own standard and join the alliance, called OpenSocial.

“OpenSocial is going to become the de facto standard for developers rights out of the gate,” said Chris DeWolfe, chief executive and co-founder of MySpace. Mr. DeWolfe said that developers using OpenSocial would be able to instantly reach 200 million users across various sites.

Google and others said they had invited other social networks, including Facebook, to participate in the alliance, whose existence was first reported Tuesday.

“The most important principle about openness is that everyone is invited to join,” said Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive.

Other members of the alliance include Friendster, Hi5, LinkedIn, Plaxo and Ning, as well as the business software makers Oracle and Salesforce.com. The creators of several of the most popular programs on Facebook, including Slide, RockYou, iLike and Flixter, have announced their intention to write programs conforming to the OpenSocial standards.

The alliance is not likely to erode the popularity of Facebook or immediately alter the dynamics of the social networking market. But it could help revitalize the sites of some of its members, which have seen their social networks eclipsed by the popularity of MySpace and Facebook. Orkut, Google’s social network, for instance, is popular in Brazil and a few other countries, but has failed to gain traction in the United States.

Google may benefit in other ways. As other social networks draw more users, it could sell more advertising on those sites. TheInternet search giant already has a $900 million advertising partnership with MySpace, and sells advertising on various other social networks. Its ads often appear inside the applications created by third-party developers. Google and MySpace have been in discussions about developing a common set of programming standards for about a year, the companies said.

At a news conference today at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Joe Greenstein, the chief executive of Flixter, whose applications allow users to share movie recommendations, demonstrated his program running inside MySpace.

“We are excited about OpenSocial,” Mr. Greenstein said. But he added that Flixter was not planning to pressure Facebook, where millions of members use the company’s program, to adopt OpenSocial. Mr. Greenstein said that customizing his company’s application that runs on Facebook to run on OpenSocial had been a painless task.Facebook declined to comment.

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Replace Facebook Using Open Social Tools

November 1, 2007

With a little savvy, anyone can create a page that hosts all of the essential stuff one would find on a Facebook profile that can be set up with the same plug-and-play ease. You’ll have to store all of your photos, videos, and contacts elsewhere, but at least you’ll be able to get to your stuff.

Start by setting up a blog. Say what’s on your mind. Unlike your blog on Facebook or MySpace, everyone will be able to read it.

From there, you can pull in your photos from Flickr or Zooomr, show off your impeccible musical tastes hosted at iLike or Last.fm, share your favorite web bookmarks from del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia and put up a list of your most recent reads using Shelfari or LibraryThing.

All of these services have open APIs, making it easy for third-party developers to build widgets for displaying public data stored there. As a result, many such tools exist.

Need to keep up to date with your friend’s activities? Pull in a feed from their blog or from their Twitter page. The Upcoming event notification service has a dead simple code generator that will create a widget listing all of the events you plan to attend, as well as those your friends are interested in. Like to chat? Meebo offers an embeddable widget for AIM chatting, and Jaxtr does the same for SMS. You can even drop in a Skype button that lets your friends call you with one click.

One of Facebook’s unique features is the “everything in one place” feed service (Mini-feeds and News Feeds), but you can build such a thing yourself. Just create an account at one of the many feed re-mixing sites like Yahoo Pipes, FeedShake or FeedBlendr. Plug in all the feeds from the various sources you want to track and paste the resulting URL into a widget on your site. Voila.

The free blogging software from WordPress has all of the functionality to let you embed these widgets and RSS streams. WordPress also has a thriving plug-in ecosystem, so it’s likely a developer somewhere has done much of the dirty work for you. Alternatively, want to create your own Facebook? Elgg is an open source solution that embraces open standards; People Aggregator is a commercial solution, and Ning allows you to host networks on a central server. All have made a public commitment to opening up their data.

An even easier option is to use a sharable and customizable start page from Pageflakes or Protopage. Pageflakes in particular allows you to build a customized chunk of cyberspace that aggregates all of your desired content just like Facebook, which you can then publish publicly (Pageflakes calls this a “Pagecast”). And beyond a simple user registration, Pageflakes doesn’t lock in any of your personal data.

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