Social networks don their platform shoes

Facebook scored big by opening up to outside developers. Now its rivals are aiming to follow in its footsteps.

Caroline McCarthy
Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
4 min read
Five months after Facebook unveiled its platform initiative, the real arms race isn't among developers who want a piece of the action. Now, it's all about other Web companies looking to replicate Facebook's success.

In the past weeks, social networks Tagged, Hi5 and LinkedIn have made it clear they're working on application program interfaces (APIs) for developer platforms much like Facebook's. Rumors have been flying that Facebook's chief rival MySpace.com is working on something similar as well--though it doesn't appear it will be announced this week, as some had thought. (Representatives from the News Corp.-owned site said they have "nothing to report.")

Third-party developers appear unfazed by the prospect of creating applications for a half-dozen platforms. In fact, they realize that unlike the desktop, where simply writing for the Windows operating system means reaching the bulk of PC users, there's no one "ecosystem" that can lock in users--at least not yet. As a result, developers have to work with several of them.

"We definitely intend to develop on all the platforms that will be coming out, and we're stacking up to do exactly that," said Jia Shen, chief technology officer of widget company RockYou, which has stood out as one of the Facebook Platform's notable successes. "To us, it's not a gamble."

The idea of wooing developers to one social-networking platform makes Google, which has for several years been integrating with third-party developers on other properties such as Google Maps, an intriguing possibility in this fight for attention.

Sources say the company might open the code for Orkut, its social network, which has so far failed to make U.S. inroads. Google might leverage some of its existing properties, like Gmail or possibly new acquisitions like Jaiku, into a more coherent social utility. It's possible customers will get some answers, somehow, on November 5, according to the blog TechCrunch.

"The advantage that Google has over other would-be players or start-ups is that just by virtue of being Google, they will compel attention," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk.

"Facebook was the catalyst for this race to own the social graph."
--Nick O'Neill, blogger, AllFacebook

Sources familiar with the search giant's plans have told CNET News.com that a number of developers have already been invited to work with what may be the Google platform, but they're being tight-lipped and developers have been ordered to stay mum. Google representatives, including executives who attended a cocktail party in the company's New York branch earlier this month, repeatedly have refused to comment on a possible platform strategy.

Nick O'Neill, who runs the AllFacebook blog, likened the platform fight to a colonial land grab. "Facebook was the catalyst for this race to own the social graph," O'Neill said, using Mark Zuckerberg's term for the web of real-life connections and communications the Web replicates. Social-networking companies "are trying to own large components of the social graph because you're going to want to use one in theory." In his opinion, Web users will inevitably grow tired of using three or four social networks to access their online lives.

But if colonial powers of yore wanted access to natural resources, what Facebook and its rivals want is hegemony over our interactions. The more we use a social network as a surrogate environment for our real-world relationships, the more time we spend on the site. "It's the attention economy," O'Neill said.

That's also where Google may have an advantage. "Unless (Facebook) builds an e-mail client to try and compete with Gmail, basically, that's Google's leverage over Facebook," he said.

But even if the developer platform is the trendiest concept in social networking since the friends list, it's also an incarnation of some of its problems, such as security and privacy.

And for developers, they're entrusting the platform with their own creativity. Facebook has already made it clear that there are no confidentiality protections for developers who submit business plans to the company in the hopes of earning venture cash for their applications. Theoretically, this means Facebook could see a developer plan it likes and create something similar in-house. "In the history of how developers have interacted with platforms, that's just sort of a cost of doing business, unfortunately," O'Grady said. "They need to go in with open eyes, but that will happen, guaranteed."

Facebook's platform made it the talk of the town in Silicon Valley, but it's not yet clear how that interest will turn into cash. It's that esoteric concept of an "ecosystem" around Facebook that will take time to prove itself.

"It'll be interesting to see what other platforms come out with from a revenue standpoint," RockYou's Shen said.

As the platform rush expands beyond traditional social networking, profitability is on the mind. Samir Arora, CEO of women's-focused media company Glam Media--which has built its business model around a loose network of ad-supported "member" sites--told CNET News.com that Glam would soon be unveiling a developer platform strategy for third parties to create distributable apps.

The widgets, Arora explained, "must be monetizable." Google, meanwhile, shouldn't have to worry about this one--it's already got AdSense. Chalk up another point for Mountain View.

It's also clear that social networks, particularly smaller ones, can't just unveil a developer platform and expect the users to flood in. "Basically, what developers want, in my opinion, out of a platform more than anything else, is volume," O'Grady said. "They want to be able to reach the widest possible audience."