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Five months after Facebook said it was opening its platform to third-party developers, Google aims to open social networking still further.
The search engine is about to introduce what it hopes will become a standard set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for building social applications that will work across social networking and other Web sites.
The Facebook platform is open in the sense that anyone can write applications that make use of Facebook social data. But such programs, or widgets or gadgets as they're often called, only run on Facebook because developers have to use a proprietary markup language. Developers tend to prefer being able to write one application that runs everywhere.
Google's new OpenSocial APIs (soon to be posted) are open in the sense that developers can write applications that work on any Web site that choose to implement OpenSocial. These applications can access user profile data, friend lists, and friend-related notifications in a standard manner.
At the moment, Facebook or MySpace, the two market leaders in the social networking space, are not supporting OpenSocial. But many other social networks are, including Google's Orkut, hi5, iLike, LinkedIn, Ning, Plaxo, Oracle, Salesforce.com, and Slide, among others.
In a briefing at Google's San Francisco office, Google director of product management Joe Kraus said that OpenSocial was a developer announcement, not a consumer one. He characterized it as part of Google's ongoing effort to make the Web a better platform and cited Google Gears as an example of how Google has tried to improve Web-based applications.
"It's not Google Social," said Kraus. "It's about making the Web more social."
It's also about making the Web more lucrative. "The primary benefit for developers is distribution," said Kraus. "With scale, comes revenue opportunity."
Kraus said that businesses have typically been left out of the social networking conversation. But the presence of Oracle, LinkedIn, and Salesforce.com as partners, he said, will hopefully make it clear that social networking isn't just a consumer phenomenon.
All told, Kraus estimated that partners participating in OpenSocial offer a combined audience of over 100 million people. Facebook claims to have over 50 million active users.
"This is really round one of a protracted competition that's not just between Google and Facebook, but pretty much every Web giant that owns some data about people on the Web," said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes, pointing to Amazon, eBay, and Microsoft as examples. "This is an evolving multi-way, multi-faceted competition that's going to characterize the next five years."
What's missing, said Valdes, is any common user experience, which he believes is one of the reasons that Facebook has prospered. There's also no provision for social search, he said.
So while Google may be offering a more open model than Facebook, the value of Facebook's walled garden isn't yet diminished. "They poked a hole in the dike, but it's far from opening up the floodgates," said Valdes.
Don't count the open model out, however. "Over time, open tends to win over closed," said Kraus. "But it's still very early in terms of social networking."