[Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed piece by Lee Lorenzen, an investor in Facebook applications.]
Last week, Google hosted a meet-up for Facebook application developers. The goal of the event was to promote its OpenSocial platform, which lets third party developers build applications for a range of social networks.
Google wanted to give these Silicon Valley developers an intimate look at OpenSocial and show off the latest and most interesting of its applications. Basically, it was a ploy to convince these developers to build for Google’s platform, and not Facebook.
The packed room of 280-plus developers was all ears for the first hour. Here’s what the developers wanted to hear: That OpenSocial was going to offer a clean set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that would allow them to write or port their apps to MySpace, Orkut, Hi5, Bebo and other OpenSocial participants.
Such a promise would be a near automatic way for these developers to duplicate the work they’ve done on their Facebook applications and reach the audiences of the 18 other “container” companies that are part of OpenSocial.
However, at the event (I was there), a Google OpenSocial API platform manager told a story of disorganization. For example, it was only the the week before meet-up that the coalition of participants met to decide who would have “governing” responsibility for the platform’s technical specifications.
The manager went on to say that OpenSocial is still not complete and that the coalition of companies has key areas that still need to be figured out. Among other things, they have yet to establish methods to authenticate platform users, extend the API, build in security features and align cross-platform Terms of Services agreements.
After this uninspiring introduction came the demos of half-baked OpenSocial applications. Each of the apps on display, including things like “Nuts for my friends,” clearly had to write important parts of the interface from scratch. Google has not provided a standard interface for the invite system, the menu tabs, and more. In contrast, these elements are provided for free as part of the Facebook APIs.
The result was a mess: OpenSocial developers were implementing the elements of the interface in a variety of ways that didn’t seem to match each other or their target platform. Facebook apps, on the other hand, all use the same basic interface.
Google and OpenSocial will struggle to convince developers to divert resources away from Facebook. In its current state, it’s not likely to slow the masses of consumers around the world who are flocking to that competitor.
But is there a solution? Perhaps.
If Google — and its ally MySpace — really cared about making OpenSocial a winner, they’d offer $1 million to each of the top 50 Facebook application developers if they can to deliver live versions of their apps on MySpace’s implementation of OpenSocial, and fast — say, by Jan 1.
The reason for picking MySpace first is that it already has information like favorite movies, books, and bands that would have a nice match with Facebook’s profile data. Myspace is also the largest of the OpenSocial participants in terms of targetable users, so how MySpace decides to extend the OpenSocial API is likely to become the de facto standard for anything the specification doesn’t nail down.
Once the MySpace version of the OpenSocial implementation is complete, then the other OpenSocial social networks will have a very tight specification to write to and 50 killer apps to test them.
If Google and MySpace did this, the world might begin to take OpenSocial seriously.