"OpenSocial" - Google's combine and conquer social networking strategy

More details of Google's social networking plans have emerged, revealing a "combine and conquer" strategy aimed squarely at Facebook and, to a lesser extent, MySpace.
Written by Steve O'Hear, Contributor

More details of Google's social networking plans have emerged (TechCrunch and the New York Times), revealing a "combine and conquer" strategy aimed squarely at Facebook and, to a lesser extent, MySpace.

Dubbed "OpenSocial", Google -- joined by partnering social networks which include Orkut, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Ning, Hi5, Plaxo, and Friendster -- will launch a set of three common APIs on Thursday, designed to create an alternative developer platform to that offered by Facebook (and soon MySpace), which embraces the "small pieces, loosely joined" philosophy of the web, and in doing so, should help to re-balance third-party developer efforts away from Facebook's proprietary platform, and back towards the web as the platform.

OpenSocial's three APIs will allow developers to access the following core functions and information on participating social networks, referred to as "hosts":

  • Profile Information (user data)
  • Friends Information (social graph)
  • Activities (things that happen, News Feed type stuff)

More specialized social data and functionality will still need to be offered by additional APIs provided by each social network itself.

TechCrunch notes that another way in which OpenSocial differs from Facebook is that it does not have its own markup language:

Facebook requires use of FBML for security reasons, but it also makes code unusable outside of Facebook. Instead, developers use normal javascript and html (and can embed Flash elements). The benefit of the Google approach is that developers can use much of their existing front end code and simply tailor it slightly for OpenSocial, so creating applications is even easier than on Facebook.

Interestingly, developers to have already sign-on include Facebook success stories, iLike, RockYou and Slide.

OpenSocial's attraction to both developers and "hosts" are obvious. For developers they can more or less build apps once that run across multiple networks, negating the need to pick and choose where to place their resources. For participating "hosts", they'll be able to attract third-party attention, and resulting applications, away from Facebook, in a way which would have previously been near-impossible.

However, lots of questions remain unanswered. Top of the list is monetization and participation: will ads be allowed to run on OpenSocial apps? will all developers be able to access the platform or will they need to be vetted first? Since OpenSocial is just a set of common APIs, I suspect that the answer to both is that it will be up to each "host" network. LinkedIn, for example, has already said third-party apps will have to be approved.

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