Google Unveils OpenSocial

Remember when Facebook decided to open itself up so that third-party developers could build applications that work on the social networking site? Earlier this month, Google out-opened Facebook by introducing OpenSocial, a system that lets developers build applications for Google’s Orkut and all of the other partners in the initiative. What can we expect next?

First, let’s take a look at the OpenSocial system itself. OpenSocial is an open system that “provides a common set of APIs for social applications across multiple websites,” according to Google. If you’ve written applications for Facebook using FBML (Facebook Markup Language) and really hate the idea of learning yet another scripting language, take heart. This is a standards-based system; if you already know JavaScript and HTML, you know all you need to write OpenSocial applications.

OpenSocial features three common APIs. The People and Friends data API lets applications view and update profiles and friend relationships. This is the kind of application you’d use if you wanted to get a list of someone’s friends, for example. The Activities data API lets applications view and publish “actions.” If you want to build an application that lets users know when one of their friends uploads data, you’d use this API. Finally, the Persistence data API is a little more complicated; it lets applications “edit or delete content for an existing application, user, or gadget instance, and query the content in an existing feed.” If you serve content and want to push it out to all of your gadgets, this is the API you want to use.

So what, specifically, can you write with this system? To judge from some of the examples provided on Google’s website, just about anything. The home page for the OpenSocial system includes a number of examples: a PayPal app for performing transactions with your friends via the online payment system; a Shelfari app that lets you share your favorite books with your friends; a New York Times feed; and many more.

“The Web is fundamentally better when it’s social, and we’re only just starting to see what’s possible when you bring social information into different contexts on the Web,” a Google spokesman noted. “There’s a lot of innovation that will be spurred simply by creating a standard way for developers to run social applications in more places.”

An open system like this is no good whatsoever if none of the companies in the social networking space want to use it. It’s a little bit like online social networking itself – it doesn’t matter how cool the network is and what it lets you do if nobody you know is using it. It’s worse if hardly anybody at all is using it, period.

Fortunately, despite all the feathers it’s ruffled, Google has almost as many friends as Tom from MySpace. No less than seventy companies are listed as having provided demos; they’re participating as part of the alliance. Partners fall into two broad classes: social networks and developers of applications for social networks. Of course, there is a good bit of overlap in some sense; there’s nothing to prevent a social network from using OpenSocial to build its own applications.

There are some very prominent names on that list. Business networking site LinkedIn is rubbing shoulders with Oracle; Friendster and Orkut are socializing with iLike and Six Apart; Ning, Flixter, and even the New York Times are participating. But perhaps Google’s most notable friend is, yes, Tom himself: shortly after the search engine giant made the original announcement, MySpace came on board. As things stand now, the alliance boasts more than 100 million users; that’s more than twice the number of members signed up for Facebook.

Calling the timing of this alliance “interesting” is an understatement. The press release was issued a scant week or so after Microsoft revealed to the world that it had taken a minority stake in Facebook, with advertising rights as an important part of the deal. At the time, it was widely believed that the software giant had managed to steal a march on Google. Then, too, it was widely thought that MySpace was in the process of completing its own platform for applications; that platform will now be entirely focused on OpenSocial.

The timing of this alliance is good for other reasons too. Reporting on the story, TechCrunch noted that “Developers have been complaining nonstop about the costs of learning yet another markup language for every new social network platform, and taking developer time in creating and maintaining the code…Developers will immediately start building on these APIs to get distribution across the impressive lists of hosts…” If developers built more than 5,000 applications in the hopes of reaching 48 million Facebook users, how much busier do you suppose they’ll get on the hope of reaching more than twice that many?

If you’re wondering why Google is doing this, TechCrunch hit the nail on the head recently. “Google wants to create an easy way for developers to create an application that works on all social networks. And if they pull it off, they’ll be in the center, controlling the network.” If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu from reading that, pay attention to it; there’s more going on here than you might think.

Yesterday, if you visited SEO Chat and read our newest article, you learned that Google unveiled its gPhone. Only it wasn’t a gPhone. It was an initiative, dubbed Android, to start building phones in a standards-based way, with hardware that can handle certain mobile applications. Google doesn’t want these applications to come just from them; they’re hoping third parties will use the standards to build their own applications, which will then be capable of working on any phone built to Google’s specifications. This puts Google in the center, controlling the network.

Google is trying to purchase online advertising firm DoubleClick. DoubleClick coordinates online advertising campaigns. And if Google is successful in purchasing DoubleClick, it will put the search giant in the center, controlling the network – or at least a major player in the network.

In June 2006, Google unveiled Google Checkout. At the time it was announced, this new service was billed by some in the press as a potential “PayPal killer.” But Google’s goal wasn’t really competing with PayPal. Google Checkout is that lets online vendors accept several different forms of payment if they wish, including, yes, PayPal – assuming PayPal decided to join, which it hasn’t. At this point, Google Checkout doesn’t seem to be very popular, but if it ever catches on, it would be another case of Google in the center, controlling the network. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

Of course, Google’s dominance of search is itself, in a sense, controlling the network – except that nobody is actually compelled to use Google. As long as Google is doing at least as good a job as its competitors in delivering results, web surfers will continue to search with it. But they will only do so for that long; if Google slips enough, users will begin to desert it. There are, and continue to be, other viable options. This is one reason that none of Google’s recent activity can really be called monopolistic (with the possible exception of the DoubleClick deal).

If it seems monopolistic to you, you’re probably remembering Microsoft. The software giant put itself in the center of the PC rather than the network by controlling the operating system, which every computer needed to do anything useful. Third party applications had to be built to run under Windows if they wanted to gain traction – just as Google is hoping its standards will catch on and everyone will write applications with those standards in mind. Perhaps the two companies aren’t so different in some ways.

The OpenSocial initiative is ambitious in a number of ways. There’s the obvious hope that it will catch on, but there’s also the fact that it’s only part of a larger project. Dubbed “maka-maka,” which is “friend” in Hawaiian (and how DID Hawaiian become the language of cool on the web?), it involves building a social layer into all Google-based applications. Is this an important project? Well, Google has assigned responsibility for it to Jeff Huber, its vice president in charge of engineering.

The move makes a certain amount of sense. Anyone who has joined more than one online social network knows that there are standard applications that they all offer their users. The emphasis and focus of the network may be different (business, dating, planning events, or even just meeting people and keeping in contact), but nearly every network lets users send messages to other members, view their profiles, communicate via an IM system, read other user’s blogs and write their own, view and upload images, share other information…the list goes on and on.

Interestingly enough, Google has applications that let you do all of these things through its various properties: Gmail, Gtalk, Blogger, Picasa, and more. Need to plan events for a whole group, or keep track of what everyone is up to? Try Google Calendar. Like social bookmarking systems? Google has one of those too.

There will no doubt be the usual privacy issues. Those shouldn’t be pushed aside; they’re also causing a serious snag in the Google-DoubleClick deal. And many Google initiatives don’t actually get very far. But with so many partners – both developers and online social networks themselves — climbing on board the OpenSocial part of this initiative, it looks like the only question remaining is what Facebook will do.

Suddenly, Facebook’s position as THE social network to join doesn’t look as secure anymore. Somewhere down the road, this will hit the online social networking site in terms of its potential advertising revenue. And online advertising is one game that Google knows all too well.

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