MySpace, Plaxo and now Google all support a new open standard for sharing social data across web services. Called Portable Contacts, it lets third parties securely access data like your address book in Gmail or your friends list for use on other sites. What are the implications? Third-party sites are getting more data that they can use in other products. For example, a web site might use Portable Contacts to pull information out of a social network, like all of your friends’ birthdays, then let you email virtual greeting cards to these people on their birthdays.
That’s just one of many uses, says Plaxo chief platform architect Joseph Smarr, who led the standard’s development. Other uses could be simple interface tweaks, like an auto-complete form within a web site where users can see the names of their friends appear when they start typing the first letters of their names. “Once data is malleable, people will do more innovative things,” Smarr says.
Microsoft and Yahoo have also been working with Smarr and other developers to build their own contact application programming interfaces — at some point, expect those companies to officially join Portable Contacts.
Up until now, developers have had to “scrape” contact information about a user’s friends from a given service by asking the user for their name and password. That’s not just a risk for users, it’s a time-sink for developers as they have to build software to scrape each individual service — Gmail, Hotmail, etc.
Portable Contacts instead works together with other standards in the so-called open stack. For example, one of those services, called OAuth, lets a site request pieces of information about a user — now, developers can access a site using OAuth then extract specific friend data using Portable Contacts.