On Friday TechCrunch published details of a confidential Google briefing, in which the company laid out its plans to "out open" Facebook (Mike Arrington's words not mine):
The short version: Google will announce a new set of APIs on November 5 that will allow developers to leverage Google’s social graph data. They’ll start with Orkut and iGoogle (Google’s personalized home page), and expand from there to include Gmail, Google Talk and other Google services over time.
The result would be that third parties (as well as Google themselves) will be able to build applications that leverage the social networking data that Google already holds about us. My immediate reaction was mixed. Such a move raises the usual privacy concerns and if realized would crystallize in the minds of users just how much personal data Google has amassed. On the other hand, by allowing third parties to access that data -- with our permission, of course -- we'd see some really innovative and useful applications appear, making our data that much more useful to us.
Arrington's report also suggests that Google might try to standardize its social graph APIs, so that other companies could also use them as a way of giving third party access to their data. The result would be that third parties would be able "to both push and pull data, into and out of Google and non-Google applications."
This potentially goes a lot further than Facebook's platform, since this is much more in line with the small pieces loosely joined philosophy of the web, which looks outwards not inwards as Facebook does. Rather then applications having to congregate around one company's data and walled gardened destination (Facebook), data (Google and others') can reach out to applications anywhere on the web (or even the desktop). Sounds a lot like Tim O'Reilly's concept of the Web as OS.
However, for this to really happen -- and benefit the social web as a whole and not just Google -- would require a truly open API and for Google to adopt other open standards such as OpenID (why can't Gmail act as an OpenID server?). It also would work best, politically, if those social graph APIs were administered by a non-profit organization. This is something which Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of early blogging and social networking site, LiveJournal (acquired by Six Apart), and now thought to be a Google employee, said was necessary in his recent blog post titled 'Thoughts on the Social Graph'. Fitzpatrick is already working on a system which would enable every social networking site or every site that employs social networking features, to be able to make sense of existing public information about the social connections that a user has already made online. How this fits into Google's plans for a social graph API is not clear, but there is certainly plenty of cross-over.
Roll on November the 5th, the social web could be about to get a whole lot more interesting.