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OpenSocial opens new can of worms

Google has finally unveiled its social-networking strategy, and it's ambitious even for the seemingly unshakable tech company. Video: Flixster built into MySpace profile via Google's OpenSocial

When Google announced that its new social-networking initiative would extend to any site that wanted to participate, the land grab for the social Web's attention just got a whole lot more intense.

In a move that was anticipated for weeks, Google has unveiled a set of application program interfaces (APIs) that allow third-party programmers to build widgets that take advantage of personal data and profile connections on a social-networking site. But instead of limiting the project to its own social-networking property, Orkut, Google has invited other sites along for the ride--including LinkedIn, Hi5, Plaxo, Ning, and Friendster.

The initiative, appropriately, is called "OpenSocial." It's a clear contrast to Facebook, the social-networking site that became the talk of the tech world when it announced the opening of its developer platform in May but has kept developer activity restricted to its own service (and has since signed an exclusive ad deal with Microsoft in exchange for an equity investment, likely snubbing Google in the process). When other social networks began to announce their own "platform strategies" this fall, concerns were raised that developers would have to create a completely new application for each site. That could prove inefficient and costly, especially for smaller developers working on a shoestring budget.

Video: Flixster built into MySpace profile via Google's OpenSocial
ZDNet takes a first look at the OpenSocial framework in action.

OpenSocial, should it prove successful, would change that entirely. "At its highest level, Google is a company that is dependent upon having a great Web platform," said Joe Kraus, Google's director of product management, in an interview with CNET "This announcement is about making the Web better."

Creators of third-party applications are understandably optimistic. "In a lot of ways this is the greatest thing that could've happened to us," said Ali Partovi, CEO of social music site iLike. "We've already been very successful with that strategy on Facebook, but then spreading to every other social network out there without an open standard would be much more expensive, harder to justify, and harder to prioritize."

Executives at the social networks participating in OpenSocial were equally enthused. "We're in a period of time when we're realizing that social Web stuff isn't just fun, it's really fundamental," said John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo. "What we're seeing in walled gardens like Facebook and MySpace is an attempt to create a Web operating system, so there's been all this talk over the past six months about platforms...By supporting these OpenSocial APIs, we can carve out real estate that can be populated with any sorts (of applications)."

Notably absent from OpenSocial is MySpace, which has announced early-stage plans for a developer platform strategy and already has its advertisements served by Google. "We would love MySpace to be a part of it," Google's Kraus said, but declined to say why the News Corp.-owned social-networking site--or Facebook, for that matter--is not part of the deal.

MySpace representatives declined to comment.

Multiple sources who spoke to CNET both on and off the record hinted that we will, indeed, only see the tip of the OpenSocial iceberg when it's formally unveiled on Thursday night. The RSS technology behind Google Reader, for example, was rumored to be the engine behind a super-powered "social news feed" akin to Facebook's. But that's potentially on the way. "Orkut is the first customer of OpenSocial on the Google side," Kraus explained. "We think there are opportunities to make Gmail and iGoogle more social as well," he said, but declined to elaborate.

Even before OpenSocial launches, there's already plenty of speculation as to how else the program could expand from its initial incarnation. "Their missing element is social search," pointed out Gartner analyst Ray Valdes. "That's not part of the APIs right now and Google doesn't really have a social search engine in the same way that Facebook has."

Or Google could leverage its new partnerships with information-rich social media sites to boost its AdSense advertising program, especially considering that Facebook is planning to move into the sector. "All that information that they're getting from those social networks, they could use that for an upgraded model of AdSense," suggested AllFacebook blogger Nick O'Neill.

But as the OpenSocial overseer, working through partnerships rather than its usual strategy of acquisitions, Google might not have quite as much power as it's used to. "Partnerships can certainly be very efficient," said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, who specializes in open-source technology. "They can also be very challenging. You're trying to get a bunch of different firms with competing interests to try to go along. Coalitions of this sort can be problematic over time."

It could also mean some rather un-Googly red tape. The individual social-networking sites are responsible for getting their own arms of the project up and running, and exactly when that will happen is by no means clear. Friendster users, for example, won't see any OpenSocial widgets until at least the beginning of December, and LinkedIn representatives told CNET that while developer activity will begin soon, the full presence of the new platform won't be felt until early 2008.

Additionally, some of the OpenSocial participants have not abandoned their existing in-house platform strategies. "We have our own developer program," Friendster Vice President of Marketing David Jones said. "(Developers) will be able to use either Friendster's platform or OpenSocial...We already have hundreds signed up for the Friendster developer program." Jones added that Friendster's own platform will launch on November 30, before its OpenSocial integration does.

Then there's the Curse of the Zombie (or Vampire, or Pirate). By opting into OpenSocial, a social-networking site may find itself at odds with users who find embeddable applications to be distracting at best and spam-worthy at worst. This is especially pertinent to sites like Plaxo and LinkedIn, which promote themselves as productivity tools rather than ways to "poke" your friends. "In some ways, any of these different attempts to mash up between a property and things created by a vibrant developer community does open Pandora's box," said Plaxo's McCrea. "I think certainly, the results to date for Facebook are mixed because of some of those overly viral applications."

Adam Nash, LinkedIn's senior director of product, emphasized that Google is allowing participating social networks to decide just how open they want their OpenSocial platforms to be. "(OpenSocial) doesn't change the fact that we truly have no interest in zombie biting and food fights on LinkedIn," he emphasized. "In order to be in the LinkedIn directory, we will have some set of standards."

"I can't say that there will be no risks here," McCrea said. "I think we're in an early phase of the social Web, and it's an experimental phase, so I think we'll be learning as we go."

CNET's Elinor Mills contributed to this story.