Facebook, as reported last week, is making its developer platform open source and available now. Facebook says the main point of this release is to give the third-party developers on Facebook a deeper look into how its platform code works. On that front, this release, called fbOpen, could make life easier for developers. One question is if rival social networks will use this code to make their own platforms compatible with Facebook applications, so that Facebook applications can more easily run on other social networks. If that happens, will it make life any easier for third-party developers?
Bebo is the only major social network that already makes use of the Facebook platform code, per an earlier licensing agreement. Bebo is also compatible with OpenSocial, a rival social network developer platform standard that MySpace, hi5, Google (through its social network, Orkut), and other social networks have already used to create their own platforms. Facebook’s platform has its own markup language, server calls and other components; OpenSocial offers a standard set of similar features, that allow applications to more easily operate on any OpenSocial member network.
Facebook has the oldest and largest third-party developer community, one that networks using OpenSocial would like to see on their platforms, instead. More than 400,000 developers have used Facebook’s platform to create more than 24,000 applications, with 140 new applications still being added to the company’s application directory each day, the company says. However, MySpace and other rivals have also been showing strong results for some applications, which is one reason that many top Facebook application developers are now focusing more attention away from Facebook.
Big-picture, the rush towards openness among rivals is making things more complicated for everyone. Each implementation of OpenSocial in each social network varies based on the network’s customized features. MySpace, for example, uses an older version of the OpenSocial protocol than hi5 does and doesn’t offer all of the features that hi5 does.
At the same time, all of the social networks are having to battle abuse by application creators. As in all open systems, platforms are subject to abuse: Some applications make their applications get more traffic through spammy tactics like sending lots of automatic email messages between users. So, the trend in each network is to reward more complex applications that add some sort of value. For example, a complex social game built by Zynga or Social Gaming Network requires more work to re-create on any platform versus a simple “poke” application.
The result, meanwhile, is a formula for third parties to do more work: The more complex an application and the more varied the number of OpenSocial implementations, the more customization each application needs on each network.
So, will any of the social networks make a move like Bebo already has, and try to build a platform that is compatible with both Facebook’s platform and OpenSocial? Supporting both code bases will take extra work on the part of the platform developers. Will having both confer any additional advantage to the network among developers? From what I hear, Bebo’s platform isn’t as hot as MySpace’s or Hi5’s, but that may be because of differences between the user bases of the respective networks; maybe Bebo’s young, mainly British users don’t care so much for applications in the first place?
Meanwhile, Facebook, MySpace and Google have all come out with their own ways to access their own social network data on other web sites. The fact that MySpace and Google have rival efforts on this front goes to show how OpenSocial is not a monolithic opponent to Facebook’s platform. I have to wonder if greater rifts will appear among OpenSocial members as their divergent interests become more clear.
Zooming out still further from the questions of cross-platform application and data portability, questions remain about how applications and social networks can be monetized effectively in the first place. I hear both good things and bad things; more on that issue soon.
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