Google’s announcement of OpenSocial Wednesday night marks something of a turning point for the technology darling.
As the company struggles to extend its dominance in online search advertising to radio, TV and print, the OpenSocial project creates a set of open application programming interfaces (APIs) that will let developers write widgets to run on a variety of social networks, including its own.
Venture Beat published what it said was a draft of the press release, still officially under embargo, which said, “The proliferation of unique APIs across dozens of social Web sites is forcing developers to choose which ones to write applications for – and then spend their time writing separately for each.”
“OpenSocial gives developers of social applications a single set of APIs to learn for their application to run on any OpenSocial-enabled Web site. By providing these simple, standards-based technologies, OpenSocial will speed innovation and bring more social features to more places across the Web.”
A Google spokesman said in an e-mail, “There’s a lot of innovation that will be spurred simply by creating a standard way for developers to run social applications in more places. With the input and iteration of the community, we hope OpenSocial will become a standard set of technologies for making the Web social.”
OpenSocial’s purpose is to test the “social graph” concept that illustrates how individuals are connected to others across Web-based applications and discrete social networks like Orkut or Friendster.
According to Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape and the social networking site Ning, OpenSocial is not a Web services API, but rather a way for external applications to plug into a hosted environment, which he dubbed the container.
Andreessen said it took only a few days for Ning to implement OpenSocial, adding that Ning, Orkut, Hi5, LinkedIn, iLike, Flixster, and Slide would also demonstrate working code.
While some see OpenSocial as Google’s attempt to combat the growing popularity of Facebook with users and advertisers, Andreessen thinks developers will continue to use both because they’ll be able to run multiple front-ends—for Facebook, OpenSocial and others—with the same back-end code.
LinkedIn founder Adam Nash wrote on his blog that OpenSocial would make it easy for developers to write business applications that LinkedIn users might like.
As Google developer Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of the early blogging community LiveJournal, explained it on his blog, “People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site,” and “developing ‘social applications’ is too much work.”
“Facebook’s answer seems to be that the world should just all be Facebook apps,” he wrote. “While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there’s a lot of hesitation in the developer/Web 2.0 community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc.”
Fitzpatrick’s proposed solution was to make the social graph a community asset that would pool data from the various sites without making any one company its owner. As of August 17, he had prototyped a social graph comprising data from five community sites, including working implementations of the APIs, and had established a Google Group for technical discussions.
King of the open APIs
Google has seen terrific usage of its APIs. Its extraordinarily successful and developer-beloved Maps APIs kicked off a cottage industry of mashups, while the enterprise version provides high functionality for business uses. In July, Google opened its proprietary its geo-spatial mark-up language, KML 2.2, to the Open Geospatial Consortium.
But the search giant’s stature has not been as large outside of its core competencies; Orkut, its social networking site, had 24.1 million users worldwide in June, according to comScore, compared with 114.1 million for MySpace. And Google Gadgets, its own form of widgets, isn’t among the top 10, according to comScore.
OpenSocial could extend Google’s reach into widget advertising. It launched a beta service, Google Gadget Ads, in September. Google Gadget Ads lets advertisers develop widgets that are distributed just like ads across Google’s advertising network. A standard widget format would make it easier for Google to distribute them to users within other social networks.
The move also strengthens Google’s ties to outside developers. They’ll need to go to Google’s sandbox to test the APIs and their widgets, um, gadgets.
It’s interesting to note the clash between the company’s old-school PR tactics and the more open attitudes of Silicon Valley startups.
Google planned a splashy launch event Wednesday night, and, according to the blog TechCrunch, made participants sign non-disclosure agreements, yet leaked the story to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, tech gurus like Andreessen, Fitzpatrick and Nash followed developer norms and spoke openly about the projects, spreading the information all over the Web.