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 Could Challenge Google And Become The Remote Control For The Web

November 2, 2007

by Stephen Wellman

On Aug 16, the blog Facebook Insider reported that TripAdvisor acquired Where I’ve Been, the top travel-related application on Facebook. While TripAdvisor later denied the rumor, the ensuing story exposed something: The exploding number of applications on Facebook. Thanks to its Facebook API program, Facebook is fast becoming the front page for much of the Web.

In July, I argued that Facebook posed a challenge to professional networking site LinkedIn. While I stand by that assessment, I think that in that post I didn’t go far enough. Given just how fast Facebook’s API program is growing, Facebook may present an even more interesting challenge to the Web. Facebook could shape up as a rival toGoogle, Yahoo, and even search itself.

By integrating more applications into its platform, Facebook is trying to transform itself from being just a social networking platform to becoming a full-interactive control panel or remote control for the Web. Unlike earlier attempts to do this — think of the portal model of Web 1.0 — Facebook has designed its API system so that users can access all the Web sites they want without ever leaving Facebook, or opening new Web pages. I suspect that Facebook will expand this functionality so that eventually the entire Web can be accessed through these widgets.

In short, Facebook wants to become the locus of control for much of the user’s Web activity, letting the user seamlessly share travel information, pull in news updates from blogs like TechCrunch, or send questions to the user’s social network with apps like MyQuestions.

If you will allow me to extend the remote control metaphor, Facebook users no longer have to go “out there” in the rest of the Web to get new sites, they can pull them through Facebook, either with invites from the app providers or, more effectively, through their social network itself. The cumulative impact of this could be huge. Just as the remote control gave birth to the couch potato (the ultimate passive TV viewer), so too could Facebook change the game for Web use.

If users no longer need to search to find new cool Web applications, they won’t need to use Google, Yahoo, or MSN as much. Instead, they can rely on Facebook for finding new applications. Now, I don’t think this would mean the end of search, but it could reduce its importance pretty significantly. If that happens, Google loses power and Facebook gains it.

What do you think? Do Facebook and its exploding universe of applications pose a real threat to Google and search in general?

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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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