Google's OpenSocial Juggernaut Gets This Party Started, Right?

Article ImageGoogle’s recent surprise entry into social networking has kicked off a land rush that has developers scrambling for real-estate and first-mover status in a massive, largely untapped, and previously closed-off market.

When Facebook released its API last May, becoming the first major social network to open up its platform to outside developers, industry experts praised the move. Developers could reach out to more than 65 million Facebookers by offering widgets and add-ons for profiles while the company’s own feature set grew faster than ever. Conventional wisdom said other networks would have to release APIs of their own to compete.

Yet Google transformed the landscape with a single November announcement: OpenSocial, its new social networking API that allows developers to publish the same application on any social network that is part of OpenSocial. Accompanying the announcement was a list of launch partners that included several major players such as MySpace, Orkut, Bebo, and hi5. Notably absent was Facebook, whose groundbreaking API was now being called quaint compared to the new 200 million-use, Google-led OpenSocial coalition.

By bringing together most major players under a single API, the launch of OpenSocial marks the start of a race to reach the previously unreachable, says Jia Shen, co-founder and CTO of Rock You, which has developed several popular applications on Facebook and is also developing for OpenSocial. “It’s now a matter of timing, not technology,” he says. “Before OpenSocial, there wasn’t a clear path.”

The OpenSocial announcement also killed off the idea of following the Facebook model, says Ziv Navoth, Bebo VP of business development and marketing. “The days of social networks introducing their own proprietary API are done,” he says. Shen and Navoth both see this as a good thing.

No one agrees more than Google. A spokesman says OpenSocial aims to help developers spend their time “building great applications” instead of reworking them for different networks. “Instead of stretching themselves to develop for dozens of propriety APIs, they’ll create more applications that in turn provide a great experience for people on the web.”

According to Brian Kellner, VP of product at NewsGator, an online syndication service that was invited to be an early OpenSocial adopter, companies that successfully exploit OpenSocial will be those that move quickly, know their audience and the social networks they're targeting, and find value in combining assets with the social graph. According to a slide in a recent presentation to publishers and media: "Promising lands await"—where there is "law but not necessarily order." During the same presentation, Google developer advocate Kevin Marks agreed on the lack of order, saying Google faces issues regarding the security and storage of user data and working out regulations for conducting commerce over OpenSocial applications.

Walker Fenton, GM of Newsgator’s syndication services, urges companies to get involved in OpenSocial even though the end benefits remain unclear. During a recent presentation, Fenton predicted that monetization of OpenSocial applications will happen through advertising, though he later conceded that click-through rates for ad campaigns on social networks have failed to meet expectations thus far.

For all the talk about OpenSocial’s implications, the product itself is fairly simple. The API is a collection of functions a developer can use to access content on someone’s user profile. At launch, Google only had a few working API calls, according to Shen. Among them are these: one to access a user’s list of friends, one to access a user’s uploaded images, and another to interact with a user’s newsfeed, his or her list of actions performed while using the network.

With so few functions available along with so many unanswered questions, some, including Shen, were a bit skeptical at first. “I wasn’t as impressed as I am now,” he says. However, he says Google has since beefed up the API. Seeing working prototypes from both MySpace and hi5 in December finally changed his tune.

Though he has become a believer, Shen cautions that developers shouldn’t take Google’s “one size fits all” pitch literally. Every social network has a different focus and feature set, which has to be taken into account. “There’s a limit to how much streamlining can be done,” he says.

Despite the progress, at least one social network is hedging its bets in the standards showdown between Google and Facebook. Bebo, the third largest social network and an OpenSocial launch partner, announced in December it would also publish Facebook applications. Navoth says the company is committed to both platforms as long as it helps coders. “If you want to put developers in a position where they have to choose, that’s a no-win situation.” Bebo isn’t choosing sides, he says. “The market will decide, based on the amount of work it takes and the bang you get for your buck.”