Google-led gang to take on Facebook — Google’s OpenSocial to launch

Updated

google-opensocial.jpgA host of Silicon Valley companies led by Google are ganging together to take on Facebook — the social networking company that is the toast of the town right now.

A group of Facebook’s cross-town rival, including Google, LinkedIn, Hi5, Friendster, Plaxo and Ning, are apparently responding, in an effort to see if they can stop Facebook from running away with the lead in social networking.

The OpenSocial project is introducing common standards to allow software developers to write programs for their various developer platforms. It centers around Google’s new project, called OpenSocial (URL to go live on Thursday, see press release below). The New York Times reported the news first. The project offers common APIs application developers can use to create applications “host” company sites that participate.

It’s the latest manifestation of a plan that can be traced back publicly to new Google hire and well-known software developer Brad Fitzpatrick’s detailed post in August. Then, he described how he hoped to develop ways of connecting users based on their social relationships between many web sites.

A set of common standards between social networks has long been proposed by some of Silicon Valley’s digerati, foremost among them Marc Canter, although the proposals have focused on letting users port their profile information from site to site. The OpenSocial effort appears to let the various sites maintain control over profiles, however, letting developers build applications that would fit into an area within the host site’s user profile page, but not necessarily port the profile itself — just like at Facebook.

Silicon Valley notables such as Joseph Smarr of Plaxo, Robert Scoble of Podtech and Michael Arrington of Techcrunch followed up together with Canter on Fitzpatrick’s post with a user’s “social web Bill of Rights”. The blog post described how users had the right to own and control their own data, including data about relationships with friends.

“The Internet is supposed to survive many threats,” Plaxo’s John McCrea tells us about OpenSocial. “What we’re watching is an immune reaction to the rise of walled gardens which threaten to Balkanize the web.

VentureBeat confirmed the news of OpenSocial this evening with Google. The company said other participants include Oracle, Viadeo, ING, Hyves, Tianji and Salesforce.com. Facebook is not a member, but was welcome to join the group, according to Joe Kraus, a Google product manager. Facebook’s spokeswoman Brandee Barker, when asked to respond, said “no comment.”

By sharing standards to develop applications, the sites will inevitably draw developer interest. Most developers we’ve talked with are stretched for time and resources, and they’ve flocked to Facebook because it was the one place that let them develop applications with clear rules and also the freedom to make money. By creating a second social network hub, Google and its allies could be a compelling home for developers. Had Google not done this, developers may have chosen to work with MySpace (expected to launch in a month or so), or not even bothered leaving Facebook.

One thing not yet addressed by OpenSocial is the money and advertising component. It’s fine to have common standards, but will those standards include the right to make money from applications, and to run advertising on the application pages, without interference from the hosting Web site? It appears to leave this for each host site to determine. We requested comment from Google on its own plans, but haven’t heard back on that [Update: A Google spokesperson said “we haven’t ironed out any details yet,” but was confident that OpenSocial’s model “will create revenue opportunities for everyone.”]

MySpace, Meebo and Bebo, all significant players with platforms, or planning platforms, are also were not listed as members of the group. Slide, a photo-sharing site not mentioned in Google’s materials, is believed to be participating, however. Flixster and RockYou were mentioned as participants, but are developers, not “hosts.”

Another big name that is absent from the list is Yahoo. While the real significance of the grouping is not yet known, for Yahoo to miss the boat on this wouldn’t be good. It has struggled enough over the past year.

See the press release below for available details, but the available APIs are 1) access to a user’s profile, 2) their friends, and 3) the ability to let their friends know that activities have taken place

Facebook provides developers with a markup language, for security reasons. However, OpenSocial does not have its own markup language, instead relying on normal javascript, html and Flash — all straightforward technologies that keep things simpler for developers than the Facebook platform.

Below is a draft press release from Google on the program:

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — November 1, 2007 – Google, Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) today announced the release of OpenSocial — a set of common APIs for building social applications across the web — for developers of social applications and websites that want to add social features. OpenSocial will unleash more powerful and pervasive social capabilities for the web, empowering developers to build far-reaching applications that users can enjoy regardless of the websites, web applications, or social networks they use. The release of OpenSocial marks the first time that multiple social networks have been made accessible under a common API to make development and distribution easier and more efficient for developers.

The proliferation of unique APIs across dozens of social websites is forcing developers to choose which ones to write applications for – and then spend their time writing separately for each. OpenSocial gives developers of social applications a single set of APIs to learn for their application to run on any OpenSocial-enabled website. By providing these simple, standards-based technologies, OpenSocial will speed innovation and bring more social features to more places across the web. Users win too: they get more interesting, engaging, or useful features faster.

“The web is fundamentally better when it’s social, and we’re only just starting to see what’s possible when you bring social information into different contexts on the web,” said XXXX. “There’s a lot of innovation that will be spurred simply by creating a standard way for developers to run social applications in more places. With the input and iteration of the community, we hope OpenSocial will become a standard set of technologies for making the web social.”

Learn Once, Reach Across the Web

One of the most important benefits of OpenSocial is the vast distribution network that developers will have for their applications. The sites that have already committed to supporting OpenSocial — Website Partner A, Website Partner B, Website Partner C, etc. –- represent an audience of well over 100 million users globally. Critical for time- and resource-strapped developers is being able to “learn once, write anywhere” — learn the OpenSocial APIs once and then build applications that work with any OpenSocial-enabled websites.

Several developers, including Gadget Partner Z, Gadget Partner Y, Gadget Partner X, etc., have already built applications that use the OpenSocial APIs. Starting today, a developer sandbox is available at http://sandbox.orkut.com so developers can go in and start testing the OpenSocial APIs. The goal is to have developers build applications in the sandbox so they can deploy on Orkut and ultimately other OpenSocial sites.

More Social In More Places

The existence of this single programming model also helps websites who are eager to satisfy their users’ interest in social features. More developers building social applications more easily translates directly into more features more quickly for websites.

“Orkut has tens of millions of passionate users who are constantly clamoring for new ways to have fun with their friends and express themselves through Orkut,” said Amar Gandhi, group product manager for Orkut, Google’s social networking service. “By using OpenSocial to open up Orkut as a platform for any developer, we can tap into the vast creativity of the community and make new features available to our users frequently.”

The common method that OpenSocial provides for hosting social applications means that websites can engage a much larger pool of third party developers than they could otherwise. They can direct resources that might have gone to maintaining a proprietary API and supporting its developer community to other projects.

Because OpenSocial removes the hassle from developing for individual websites, developers can unleash their creativity anywhere that catches their interest. This will translate into a wave of social features in contexts outside of the personal entertainment and games that are traditionally thought of as the social web.

Three APIs available now

The OpenSocial APIs give developers access to the data needed to build social applications: access to a user’s profile, their friends, and the ability to let their friends know that activities have taken place. OpenSocial resources for developers and websites are available now at code.google.com/apis/opensocial.

Developers will have access to:
– Three JavaScript and Gdata APIs to access social functions
– A live developer sandbox on Orkut at sandbox.orkut.com

Websites will have access to:
– A tool to help OpenSocial-enable their websites
– A support forum for communicating with Google and other websites

All of these resources and the live developer sandbox are available now.

Developers already at work

Dozens of developers have helped test early iterations of the OpenSocial APIs and Google is grateful for the extensive feedback they have provided.

[List of all gadget developers]

Links to these gadgets are available at http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial.

Eric Eldon contributed to this article.


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