Google's OpenSocial a Step Forward, but Real Value Depends on Who Joins Up

MySpace, Oracle, Salesforce.com sign up for Google's developer environment for social networks. Will Facebook join them?

Google announced Nov. 1 that it would launch OpenSocial, a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for social networking sites that allow third-party developers to create widgets and other applications running on a common code base.

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While Google’s effort started with the support of MySpace, the largest social networking site, as well as big software vendors Oracle and Salesforce.com, experts warned OpenSocial wouldn’t do much to open the content of social networking sites up to one another. The project could benefit corporate IT departments by making available a greater number of applications to choose from if they decide to build social networks for their companies.

Google's OpenSocial program is seen as the company’s strongest move in social networking to date, and a response to the rising popularity of Facebook, the number-two social networking site that is growing at a faster rate than MySpace. But OpenSocial doesn’t “open” the content of these social networking sites to users who aren’t part of their online network; this walled-off nature has long been a contentious issue raised by many power users of social networking sites. Traditionally, if someone was a MySpace user and wanted to view his or her friend’s Facebook file, for example, that person would have to sign up for the other service as well and create a new profile. OpenSocial doesn’t change that reality.

The OpenSocial program “will help the small developer trying to make applications for more sites, but this won’t really open up data between the [social networking] sites,” says Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner.

In addition to third-party developers who create applications geared at the consumer, heavyweight technology vendors got in on the fun. Salesforce.com and Oracle, both big in the CRM space, say they both will support the open standard. As a result, businesses that decide to use social networks in their enterprise technology offerings could allow their employees to add applications that serve both personal and professional needs.

“Salesforce.com supporting OpenSocial is one of the biggest stories that’s underplayed here,” says Anil Dash, a vice president with Six Apart, which sells enterprise blogging software such as Movable Type and Vox, and which came out in support of OpenSocial. “Right now, we have this false separation that this social network is for my personal life and this one is for my professional life. People don’t work that way,” he added.

At first glance, the announcement looked like a counter punch to the splashy news last week that Facebook would sell a 1 percent stake to Microsoft for $240 million. Executives at Google and MySpace—which has 200 million registered users—said that every company, including Facebook, is welcome to adopt the common standards for development set by OpenSocial.

But Facebook, which forces developers to tweak their applications to meet its proprietary code, has not made it clear whether it would consider embracing the open standard.

“There’s an oppositional scenario in which the battle lines could get drawn [between social networks],” says Gartner’s Valdes. “People could elbow their friends to say you’re either with us or against us.”

Joining MySpace in the deal were a slew of smaller social networking sites, other technology vendors and third-party developers. Some other partners deemed as “containers”—sites that would accept the apps developed on the OpenSocial platform—included LinkedIn, the Google-owned Orkut, Friendster and Ning.

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