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Rivals Yahoo, Google Ally on Social Network Apps

Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) has joined forces with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and MySpace to announce the OpenSocial Foundation, a nonprofit venture to support the development of portable, interoperable applications under the OpenSocial standard.

This comes the same day that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) announced it is adding to the Windows Live platform the ability to share contact information with friends on five social networks: Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, Hi5 and Tagged.

By far the more significant announcement, the OpenSocial Foundation makes unlikely allies out of longtime competitors Yahoo and Google. In recent weeks, Yahoo has been making a lot of noise about giving developers access to its search, e-mail and mobile applications.

So while Yahoo is not a social network in the conventional sense, the embrace of OpenSocial casts light on the direction it will take with its developer initiative. Less clear is the impact that joining forces with Google will have on Microsoft's acquisition bid.

For Google, Yahoo's membership adds clout to the emerging OpenSocial standard, which currently powers applications on social networks frequented by about 200 million people, said Joe Kraus, Google's director of product management. That figure includes the social network Hi5, which plans to announce official support for OpenSocial next Tuesday.

"The foundation's primary job will be to provide a safe harbor for intellectual property," Kraus said on a conference call announcing the nonprofit group, scheduled to be set up by July 1.

The foundation's Web site, opensocial.org, will serve as a hub for the OpenSocial developer community, he said. The site will contain updates, documentation and other resources for developers, carrying with it the assurance of a patent nonassertion covenant so that developers can contribute to the specification free from intellectual property concerns.

"OpenSocial has been a community-driven specification from the beginning," Kraus said. "The formation of this foundation will ensure that it remains so in perpetuity."

In a similar spirit, Microsoft's announcement today builds on the goals presented at the MIX08 conference earlier this month, where it announced a series of Windows Live APIs and touted its commitment to secure and simplified data portability.

One of the betas announced at MIX was the Windows Live Contacts API, designed to enable the secure portability of contact lists within the Windows Live environment. Today's announcement builds on that initial offering to developers with "functionally similar contacts APIs" to create "a safe, secure two-way street for users to move their relationships between our respective services," Windows Live Platform Director John Richards wrote in a blog post.

Supporting Microsoft's portability push will be a new Web site, invite2messenger.com, where people can find their friends on the partner networks and invite them into their Windows Live Messenger contact lists.

"For quite some time now, Microsoft has been making investments in the pursuit of data portability to put users at the center of their online experience," Richards wrote. "We look forward to continuing to engage in the dialogue on data portability to the benefit of the Internet, its users and developers."

Dueling platforms, hostile camps?

All parties involved claim they want the same thing: a more open, interoperable Web.

Inevitably, however, today's announcements will rekindle speculation about rival camps in the social networking platform wars: Google's OpenSocial vs. the Facebook Platform.

Launched in May the Facebook Platform has been an unmitigated success. Developers have created more than 20,000 applications to run on the site, driving member engagement and alerting Google to the potential of third-party participation in the social Web.

OpenSocial followed soon after, with News Corp.'s MySpace as the first adopter.

It is tempting to view today's announcements in terms of dichotomies: Google has an exclusive ad-serving deal with MySpace; Microsoft owns a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook.

Meanwhile, MySpace is the established leader among social networks, fighting to stave off the fast-growing No. 2 in Facebook. In just about every corner of its Web business, Microsoft is battling with Google. Each has a vested interest in the success of one of the top two social networks.

Dichotomies are tempting, but Gartner analyst Ray Valdes warns that they're overly reductive.

"It's not the hardened trench warfare that we've seen in the past," Vales told InternetNews.com. "It makes for an interesting cast of characters with changing roles."

The simple, complicated reality is that the social Web is a fragmented landscape, and support for an open standard of application development by no means suggests that the participating companies will cease competing.

Many of the social sites trumpeting interoperability cater to niche markets: LinkedIn has a professional orientation; Bebo has a strong foothold in the UK; Orkut's big in Brazil and Hi5 has the rest of Latin America. "But what happens to this coalition when it starts to intrude on each other's territory?" Valdes asks.

His answer is that they will likely continue to pay lip service to a social Web founded on principles of openness, all the while fighting bare-knuckled turf wars with their interoperability comrades.

As for the ones at the top, Valdes sees the potential for Facebook eventually joining the OpenSocial Foundation, but that it's doing too well on its own to get bogged down in a collaborative standards effort.

"Facebook seems to want to evolve its platform rapidly," he said. "They're probably reluctant to slow themselves down and give up control. Eventually when things settle down, I can see Facebook down the road joining with OpenSocial."

The more immediate significance of today's announcements pertains to Microsoft's pending acquisition bid for Yahoo. When asked on today's call about Microsoft's level of involvement in the OpenSocial movement, Yahoo Vice President Wade Chambers was hardly enthusiastic:

"As an open specification, any large player should be welcome to participate," he said.

That Microsoft has not made any formal move toward OpenSocial -- and today Yahoo did -- is remindful of the well-worn adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Teaming with Google to form a nonprofit is hardly an alliance on the order of outsourcing search or ad-placement technologies, which Yahoo is understood to have been considering in an attempt to keep itself out of Microsoft's hands. But cozying up to Google in any form has unmistakable implications in the context of the pending acquisition.

"Yahoo's trying to gain some wiggle room," Valdes said, either as an evasive maneuver or by trying to gain some bargaining power.

As an evasive move, the partnership could make Yahoo that much less desirable, Valdes said -- something verging on a nonfiduciary poison pill.

"Not quite poison," he said. "But maybe garlic."