Google Unveils Open Social Platform for Developers

November 1, 2007

By Michele Gershberg

Google Inc will offer Internet developers an open system to create applications across Web sites, a move that could challenge the features behind the explosive popularity of social network Facebook.

Google’s OpenSocial system gives developers standardized tools to build applications and embed them in many sites, eliminating the need for small startups or even one-person shops to customize their programs for each site.

It also has the potential to lure developers mostly allied with Facebook by allowing their applications to find a home on many other Web sites.

“This is about making the Web more social, how do you have your friends go along with you to any site on the Web?” said Joe Kraus, Google director of product management, in an interview.

Google said it had initially signed on about a dozen partners, including social network LinkedIn for business professionals, its own Orkut network and Friendster.

Developers who are testing the program include key companies behind Facebook applications, such as music recommendation service iLike and Slide, which created the “Top Friends” ranking application.

Industry blogs have speculated for nearly a month that Google aimed to unleash a major challenge to Facebook, whose decision to open its site to developers in May helped it grow to more than 48 million users.

Facebook, which secured an investment from Microsoft Corp. last week that values it at $15 billion, is due to announce its own new advertising strategy on Nov. 6.

Google had also been interested in a partnership with Facebook as it competes more closely with Microsoft for drawing Web audiences and advertisers.

Developers briefed on OpenSocial said it will help them seek the widest distribution possible for their applications, some of which are already used by millions of people on social networks.

“For months we’ve been approached by other Web sites that want us to build iLike widgets for them and we’ve been unable to build it for them,” said iLike Chief Executive Ali Partovi. “The benefit OpenSocial offers us is we can essentially … syndicate what we do to other social networks.”

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OpenSocial: Developers speak out

November 1, 2007

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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Google’s OpenSocial: What it means

October 31, 2007

By Dan Farber

Google’s open social networking platform play is the buzz of the blogosphere tonight. Indeed, it is called OpenSocial in that the set of APIs allows developers to create applications that work on any social network that joins Google’s open party. So far, besides Google’s Orkut social net, LinkedIn, hi5, XING, Friendster, Plaxo and Ning have joined the party.

Oracle and salesforce.com are also supporting Google’s OpenSocial efforts, which indicates that they have plans to add social networking elements to their application platforms. OpenSocial will officially launch on Thursday.

Plaxo emailed a statement about OpenSocial this evening, getting ahead of the stampede:

“Dynamic profiles redefine what users should expect in terms of how they can represent themselves in a social or business network,” said Todd Masonis, Co-Founder and VP of Products for Plaxo. “We believe that users should have full control over what they share with whom – and that the catalog of widgets that they can choose from should be as open and diverse as the web itself. We are excited to support in dynamic profiles any application written to Google’s just–launched OpenSocial APIs. ”

According to TechCrunch, which first reported on Google’s larger social networking ambitions, OpenSocial consists of APIs for profile information, friend information (social graph) and activities, such as a news feed. OpenSocial users Javascript and HTML rather than a markup language as Facebook does.

This comes on the heels of the Facebook’s dynamic growth based on opening its social graph to developers and Microsoft’s $240 million investment for 1.6 percent of the company. However, unlike Google, Facebook doesn’t open its APIs to support other social networks. The other social networking giant, MySpace, is also planning to open its platform to developers.

This openness is part of what Vic Gundotra, Google’s head of developer programs, meant when he said last week, “In the next year we will make a series of announcements and spend hundreds of millions on innovations and giving them away as open source.”

He explained the newfound openness as more than altruism: “It also makes good economic sense. The more applications, the more usage. More users means more searches. And, more searches means more revenue for Google. The goal is to grow the overall market, not just to increase market share.”

What does OpenSocial mean for Facebook?

Facebook has a lot of wind behind its sails, but OpenSocial will cause developers to rethink their priorities. Developing OpenSocial applications will be easier than creating Facebook apps and will work across different social networks. However, Facebook is winning because 50 million users like the service and the applications. Unless the other social networks, which in aggregate have more members, have greater appeal to users, Facebook will continue to gain ground and developers won’t abandon the Facebook Platform. Facebook could also consider supporting OpenSocial in addition to its own APIs and markup languages as a way to be more open. It will be interesting to see how Zuckerberg and company, as well as the MySpace team, respond.

The New York Times story by Miguel Helft and Brad Stone quotes Google’s Joe Kraus on the Facebook topic.

Joe Kraus, director of product management at Google, said that the alliance’s conversations preceded Microsoft’s investment in Facebook. “Obviously, we would love for them to be part of it,” Mr. Kraus said of Facebook. Facebook declined to comment.

What does OpenSocial mean for Google?

As cited above, OpenSocial is part of Google’s quest to increase usage of the Web. More applications can mean more searches and ad searches. You could also expect some new advertising services based on tapping into the OpenSocial APIs that work across all compliant social networks. In addition, Google will weave OpenSocial across its services beyond Orkut, such as iGoogle, and eventually embed the social graph in the Internet fabric for its users.

This could create some issues for Facebook, which is rumored to be cooking up a targeted ad service that can follow its members across the Web. And, Google, taking a page from Microsoft, has some confidence that over time it can build or buy its ways into a leading social network. Google will try to have its cake and eat it too.

What does OpenSocial mean for users?

For users, it means more applications that can tap into user data, social graph, feeds and other content on a variety of social networks. They will have more choice of social networks and potentially some degree of portability as the APIs evolve and Google and other heavyweights push for more standardization.

What does OpenSocial mean for developers?

For developers, they have more opportunity to spread their work across different networks without significant cost and complexity. Many of the top Facebook developers are expected to support OpenSocial APIs. In the end, the top developers will flock to the social networks that have traction, leaving room for others to build apps for the less popular networks.

What does OpenSocial mean longer term?

It could become a kind of identity fabric for the Internet–with user profile data, relationships (social graph) and other items associated with an individual, group or brand that is used as a basis for more friction-free interactions of all kinds.

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