Facebook for Grownups: Can Microsoft, Apple or Google build one?

Can Microsoft, Apple and Google build the Web 2.0 infrastructure that would allow us to enjoy Social Networking in a private and secure manner?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Can Microsoft, Apple and Google build the Web 2.0 infrastructure that would allow us to enjoy Social Networking in a private and secure manner? (Photo: CBS)

With all of the recent privacy and security concerns over FaceBook in the last several days, one wonders whether or not Web 2.0-based Social Networking as it stands today is in effect, broken.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that FaceBook was initially created by Mark Zuckerberg and other students at Harvard College in order to facilitate "Campus Culture".

The World as a College Campus is a Dysfunctional, Inappropriate and Unscalable Model for Modern Social Networking

If you've had any sort of higher education, have lived on a college campus and resided in dormitories, then you can probably understand what I am inferring to here as to the type of things that go on in these living situations and how undergraduates interact in them. For young people, it is a time of self-discovery and a time to let your hair down.

FaceBook's "Virtual Campus Culture" mentality and dynamic was later extended to High School students in 2005, and to then to the general public at large in 2006.

Facebook is now a complex, dynamic website with over 500 million users with an estimated net worth of anywhere between fifteen billion and twenty-five billion dollars. It has in its short time on Earth re-defined the way that many of us have chosen to interact with each other online.

However, at the end of the day, even with all of its new found success, FaceBook is a company that still has a "Virtual Campus Culture" mindset run by very young people with limited life experience and lacking the perspective of mature companies that truly understand the security and privacy needs of adults, families and businesses.

Life Experience and Maturity Actually Means Something

It's also worth pointing out that FaceBook's chief executive and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who is being entrusted with truly gargantuan amounts of personal data is a whole 26 years old and may not have the maturity or the life experience to appreciate the impact of how exposure of this type of information could affect so many people.

That being said, it is true that many, if not all of the most important advances and companies in this industry were built by young and enterprising people like Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Sergei Brin, Larry Page, David Filo and Jerry Yang all were about Zuckerberg's age when they started their companies.

Like Zuckerberg, all of these men have strong, quirky, dynamic and opinionated personalities that give them the qualities to lead the companies they formed. The difference between them and Mark Zuckerberg, however, is they've now accumulated a tremendous amount of life experience and they've all grown up.

Mark Zuckerberg and his Millennial crew, while having accumulated a tremendous amount of wealth with FaceBook, have not yet grown up.

The others who I have named have learned from their mistakes, have had to swallow their pride and arrogance on a number of occasions, and have a much better grip on what their customers want and need since forming their companies.

Based on the many concerns which have recently come up with FaceBook, it is my opinion that the company does not yet fully understand of what it requires to satisfy the needs and concerns of their users, nor did the company understand the implications of trying to scale out "Campus Culture" to the rest of the world.

FaceBook may have hundreds of millions of users, but it's clear that something is broken in its current design and implementation, and many of us no longer feel safe or secure in using it.

While we can all agree that Social Networking is a tool that many of us want to use, most of us want the strictest assurances that our personal information and data is not going to be used for monetization purposes without our express permission, and that there will be controls in the system for preventing unauthorized access to that information.

So far, FaceBook has completely failed to give me any reason to believe they are capable of doing any of these things.

It is my opinion that we may be better served by having the "Mature" technology companies build the infrastructure for users to "Play" in and for developers to engage in. What would a "FaceBook for Grownups" look like if the established players built it?

Microsoft as Primary Candidate

Clearly the two technology companies which have the most life experience in dealing with end-users are Microsoft and Apple. While the two have often been portrayed as Oil and Water or Matter and Antimatter from the perspective of technology ideologues and their adherents, they are the two best candidates for making safer and more secure FaceBook replacements.

Microsoft brings with it over three decades of experience in designing PC operating systems and consumer software products, along with a huge software engineering team and well as significant online assets to go along with it.

Although the company was relatively late to the Internet game, it has in a short 15 years built a large stable of technologies and properites that would enable a strong foundation for a mature and secure Social Networking community.

These technologies include Office Web Apps, as well its current Web and social properties such as Bing!, Microsoft Office Live, Hotmail and MSN. Additionally, its partnership with Yahoo! and the assets and experience that company brings to the table should not be underestimated.

To round out its Social Network, Microsoft may want to look at making a significant Social Networking/Business Networking purchase by acquiring LinkedIn, which already is the preferred tool for establishing business contacts.

Combined with the functionality from the properties listed above, LinkedIn would be a major contender against FaceBook, and would give Microsoft instantaneous credibility and brand recognition in the Social Networking space.

Social Networking: There May Be an App For That

Apple is another company that could potentially create a "Mature" social networking infrastructure, although it would have to build much of it from scratch or purchase much of what it would need to fill in the pieces.

Currently, Apple has Mac.com/Mobile Me, iTunes and the App Store as its primary Internet-based properties, and has engaged in several acquisitions of late that would seem to indicate that it is looking to expand its online presence, such as the Lala music streaming service, the Quattro mobile ad network and Siri, a mobile assistant service.

Clearly, any form of Social Networking that Apple would choose to build would be heavily entrenched in and targeted towards the mobile device ecosystem which it is building for iPhone and iPad. It would be, by definition, "Locked in" to the iDevices.

While platform and service lock-in for a Social Network may sound like a negative, it may actually be a positive and may make for a higher quality, safer, more secure and better integrated Social Networking experience than trying to integrate several web sites and allowing the kind of free-form API access to user information and data that FaceBook Applications use today.

If Social Networking becomes an Apple-controlled "App" for iPhone, iPad, iPods and Macs, and developers looking to integrate with this theoretical iFriends ecosystem would wish to participate, they would to have to do it under similar types of constraints and rules already imposed on them today to develop for iPhone and iPad. Like the iPhone/iPad App Store, iFriends would have an application review process to ensure security and quality of the applications.

I've heavily criticized Steve Jobs for his controlling and isolationist personality, and the culture of secrecy which Apple has cultivated, but I'll say this right now: I'd much rather trust him with my personal data, information and security than Mark Zuckerberg on a Social Network. And if he built one for the iPad and iPhone and Mac I'd dump FaceBook tomorrow. In a heartbeat.

Given Steve Jobs' relationship with Disney and the level of standards and controls that Apple is placing on iPad and iPhone for content review, I think we can assume that College Campus behavior on this theoretical site would not be tolerated or it would be segregated, and when it comes to your children, it would be a much safer place for them to interact.

Why? Because Parental Controls would likely be put in place by Apple to allow you to review your child's friending requests and to monitor the activity going on with their accounts -- what apps they attach to, which games they play, et cetera.

For all the reasons why we feel Apple may be a control freak, it may turn out to be the reasons why the company might be the best suited for running a Social Network.

The Google Option

While Google doesn't have Enterprise/Business experience of Microsoft nor the Device/Consumer experience of Apple, it does have the greatest breath of experience and largest amount of success when it comes to the Web and leading standardization efforts which go along with it, such as HTML5.

In terms of maturity it has six additional years of life experience as a company when compared to FaceBook. While this doesn't sound like a huge difference, it actually makes all the difference in the world.

After all, in that short twelve years of life as a company many of us have already become highly dependent on Google's online services for search, mail, voice and chat/video messaging, as well as for storing and manipulating online documents and blogging.

Google is also openly developing Social Networking technologies such as Buzz, and Orkut, but there's no coherent integration between all of them yet and Google maintains an aloof "Beta" mentality when it comes to these services, and not everything Google throws against the wall actually sticks.

Case in point -- Wave, a project that Google terminated active development on in the summer of 2010. Its overall and initial reception were along the lines of "Neat, but Why do I need this and what can I use it for". I can't say that I ever found an actual need for Wave, but I could see where the technology used in that project might fit into an overall Social Networking strategy for threaded collaboration and status updates similar to FaceBook's "Wall" in user profiles.

Buzz, which was Google's answer to Twitter, launched in early 2010 with major privacy issues that were raised, and Google is in the process of trying to better understand where it made its mistakes. Unlike FaceBook, however, the company is actually willing to admit them.

I also don't particularly like Buzz in its current form, but this is not to say that as part of a single, integrated overall offering, with better privacy controls, I might not start using it again.

Right now, Google is heavily investing most of its efforts into its core services and a device/OS independence strategy with Android and Chrome OS. But it is certainly possible that if a void exists that needs to be filled with a more trustworthy, more secure Social Networking experience, Google will almost certainly be up to the challenge.

Who will build the FaceBook for Grownups? Will it be Microsoft, Apple or Google? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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