Services & Software

OpenSocial, Facebook, Microsoft vie for developers

What started out as Google's effort to create a common API for developing gadgets for social-networking services is becoming more of a full-fledged cloud development platform.

OpenSocial is growing up fast. What started out as Google's effort to create a common application programming interface for developing small applications that can tap into multiple social-networking services is becoming a full-fledged development platform.

Ben Metcalfe

According to the OpenSocial Foundation, it has garnered a potential audience of 600 million users, with 7,500 compliant applications developed so far and 20 containers (hosts for social applications) supporting the APIs within the last 12 months. The Google spin-off incorporated itself as a nonprofit foundation to ensure support from a broad range of social-networking competitors, including Yahoo, MySpace, Hi5, LinkedIn, Ning, and Xiaonei, China's largest social network.

Giants Facebook and Microsoft, however, have so far not jumped on the OpenSocial bandwagon. Facebook has 125 million active users around the world, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seeking to establish Facebook as an "open" application platform and so far is holding off on endorsing OpenSocial. Facebook investor Microsoft, which last week introduced a social dimension to its Windows Live platform, is in the midst of rolling out a cloud services development platform.

David Glazer, director of engineering at Google Rafe Needleman / CNET News

The large OpenSocial contingent, plus Facebook and Microsoft, are all advocates of open Web standards, but they are in a competition for developers. "Everyone doing social stuff is interoperable at some level of the stack," said David Glazer, director of engineering at Google. "Facebook and Microsoft are using a big chunk of the open stack. Open architectures are all converging. It's moving fast--last year, there was no such thing as a social platform."

He pointed to collaborative efforts on OpenID, OAuth, and Portable Contacts as examples of open Web standards that are in various stages of adoption. But the OpenSocial notion of "write once, run anywhere" doesn't fly without Facebook and Microsoft joining in, or the three major platforms providing a level of interoperability and compatibility beyond common Web standards.

OpenSocial is also being positioned as more than a platform for basic widgets (gadgets in Google parlance). "We are going to see application-to-application hooks, which will blur the difference between things in the box (container) and lots of different surfaces working together," Glazer said. "We will definitely see enterprise applications."

There might come a day when Microsoft Office or Google Docs & Spreadsheets are among the top OpenSocial applications, said Alan Hurff, senior vice president of engineering at MySpace and president of the Board of OpenSocial. However, enterprises more slowly adopt new technologies, such as social networks and mashups, and must have a return-on-investment justification to fund deployments.

Some of the future improvements to the OpenSocial platform will include better development tools (Visual Studio-like tool to speed development), payment platforms, analytics, cross-container portability, and mobile-application support. "We need to make it easier for developers to build applications, reach users, and make money. From where we started, the platform has gone a long way in the right direction," Glazer said.

In regards the OpenSocial code, version 0.9 is due out at the beginning of next year. Glazer was asked to speculate on when version 1.0 would be released. "The functionality of 0.9 feels 1.0-worthy. But we don't want to stretch beyond what we know," he said.

OpenSocial is still an infant, but it has big ambitions to stretch out as a major application development platform for the cloud.