In spurning OpenSocial, Facebook loses face

Mark Zuckerberg should take another look. Facebook may think it's OK to sit this one out, but developers will likely disagree.

Nearly every time proponents of open standards confront companies clinging to a proprietary view of technology, you know who's going to have the angels on their side. So I'm still scratching my head over Facebook's decision to reply to the new OpenSocial proposal with a raised middle finger.

Pawn to Queen 4, check. Nice move, Eric. Dan Farber

On the surface, I suppose, Facebook might find the proposal easy to dismiss as yet more industry politics. But it's not every day that Google, Yahoo, and News Corp.'s MySpace decide to create a nonprofit foundation. In doing so, they are pledging to ensure that OpenSocial stays a community-driven spec "in perpetuity." And here's the delish inference: they leave it up to the rest of us to draw the obviously invidious comparison with Facebook, which wants no part of this budding band of brothers. (And just to drive home the point that Google's all about "openness," the company says it is donating the OpenSocial trademark as well as the Web site.)

What to make of all this? There's little that Google CEO Eric Schmidt does out of charity when it comes to the tech business and skeptics are rightly going to look hard at what's in it for Google. We're not talking about Mother Teresa here. And there will be close scrutiny of the process when the participants involved in this project sit down to draft a charter and set up rules for choosing a board.

But normal suspicion will take you only so far. Let's also acknowledge that there's also a big upside for developers in Tuesday's OpenSocial announcement. Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm took the words out of my mouth with the analogy with Mozilla.

The core companies will still contribute to the code, but as of July 1, it will become a community effort. This move legitimizes the idea of a social network as a platform, as it offers the ability to develop for a variety of social networks in one go; it also signals that social networks are becoming a commodity.

Facebook may think sitting this one out is a strategy, but I don't think many developers will agree. The last thing developers want is to go through the extra drudgery (and expense) involved in writing different versions of the same program for several sites.

Will users really care about OpenSocial? Wrong question for now. It's obviously early in the game, but winning the hearts and minds of developers will help answer that question. And if Facebook's interim answer is to cling to the status quo, Mark Zuckerberg should consult Steve Ballmer to see how well that tack worked against the open-source movement.

 

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