Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Facebook Platform

I don't usually write about tech stuff on this blog, but a friend's inquiry prompted me to write something about the new developer program over at Facebook. Facebook Platform is definitely an interesting innovation -- the exact opposite of the dithering that goes on at MySpace (which, incidentally, again reflects the social division between the two platforms that Boyd noted last month). And it's definitely being well-marketed: I note in particular that Bay Partners has started a whole fund just dedicated to funding Facebook apps. A funding vehicle solely dedicated to the ecosystem of what is itself only a startup? That's a marketing coup, for sure. It's also probably a waste of money (see last paragraph).

By far the most interesting part of the platform is the viral component - when a friend adds an app, their news stream notes it in their profile. Clicking on the item brings you to the app, where you can play with it yourself and/or add it. This is an extension of the general social networking aspect of the site. In Zuckerman's keynote launching the Platform, he brings up a political example: someone starts a group dedicated to a political point, and then he invites his friends; when they join, their friends are notified, and can then join themselves -- and the result is very useful especially for organizing flash mobs political rallies.

Now, this viral sharing of information obviously makes a lot of sense for organizing groups of people to do stuff. But the question is what kinds of applications do you want to share in this viral fashion. In other words, what kinds of apps will you want to add, just because you see your friends adding them? The obvious example that springs to my mind is games. If my friends think a game is cool, I'll probably try it. News alerts? Maybe (I might go, say, for an app that found the nastiest daily YouTube video). Personal finance stuff? Doubt it -- just because my brother adds a finance app doesn't make it seem that much more compelling to me.

But that's still thinking of apps in terms of single-user functions. The real killer apps in this space will surely be social apps, probably of sorts that we haven't necessarily thought of yet. The trivial example is a calendaring/invitation app -- if my friends start to migrate to a new calendaring app, I'll almost certainly go with them. The smart money is in thinking about what kinds of social apps might come next. Apps for doing stuff together. So what are quintessentially social activities that are currently underserved in the apps space? My initial thoughts (perhaps for obvious reasons, given why I am blogging at 5:00 a.m.): domestic matters. Apps related to babying and mommying? Cooking apps? (Anarchist cooking??) There could well be some very cool new ideas there.

Looking at the more macro story, this is an effort by Facebook to make the "Windows 95" play to developers. What I mean by that is that this is an entirely inward-looking application platform -- the stuff you build for Facebook will only work for Facebook users, and as a developer, you are at the mercy of Facebook at both a technical and a business level. How many crack developers will want to develop stuff for someone else's platform? It's only really worth it if the platform is/becomes the de facto standard for all users (e.g. Windows 95). Absent Facebook as a de facto standard destination for the majority of web users, however, there will always be bigger opportunities for developers in if they build apps outside Facebook. Which means that, unless they've thought of an app which is really tailored exclusively and exactly for Facebook users--e.g. extensions of Facebook's own core competencies--the best developers are likely to continue to develop stuff for the general Web, not for Facebook's proprietary platform.

It's all about the developers. As Steve Ballmer famously observed, "Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers, developers.... YES!"

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