OpenSocial: Google’s social networking initiative

googleopensocial.jpgDetails about Google’s plans for the social networking space are emerging (at last). It is called OpenSocial (the url will apparently go live later today after the announcement) and Om Malik just published a post in which he reveals that the initiative is “a set of common APIs for building social applications on the web. These common APIs mean that developers only have to learn once in order to start building social applications for multiple websites, and any website will be able to implement OpenSocial and host social applications.” That is interesting. It turns out I flipped past a TechCrunch post that gave some more info about this initiative the other day.

As I understand this plan, Google is releasing a bunch of APIs, probably initially focussed on Orkut, to be rolled out across most, if not all, of Google’s properties. This would result in a kind of social network/interactive layer over these sites and services. Developers would be able to develop apps based on these APIs, presumably for distribution across the Google network and use on Google’s sites. This sounds like an open version of Facebook’s Platform and we can apparently expect to see some of the same apps as we see on Facebook mainly because many of the developers for this new “platform” are the same ones working on Facebook apps (sorry Ivo!).

According to TechCrunch (Note: Maka-Maka is apparently the code name for what we now know as OpenSocial):

That’s where the bigger plan for Maka-Maka comes into play. Maka-Maka is very strategic for Google. Responsibility for it goes all the way up to Jeff Huber, the VP of engineering in charge of all of Google’s apps. Huber is on record as saying that the way Google plans to compete is by using the Web as the platform instead of trying to lock developers into Google’s own platform. One way it will do that from the start is by creating two-way APIs so that any app created for Google can be taken to other Websites. (Whether this will extend to actual user profile data within Orkut or elsewhere inside Google remains to be seen because of privacy issues, but the apps themselves will be portable). And data from other social sites will be able to be imported into Google’s social apps as well.

There are going to be some privacy concerns about Google’s plans though.

The bigger vision is to combine all of Google’s apps and services through Maka-Maka. Google already has so much data on you, depending on how many Google apps you already use. It just needs to bring everything together. Your contacts are in Gmail. Your feeds are in Google Reader. Your IM buddy list is in Gtalk. Your upcoming events are in Google Calendar. Your widgets are in iGoogle. And don’t forget about your search history. Overtime, Google will connect all of these together in different ways, along with data about you from other social services across the Web, and give developers access to the social layer tying all of these apps together underneath. The real killer app for Google is not to turn Orkut into a Facebook clone. It is to turn every Google app into a social application without you even noticing that you’ve joined yet another social network.

I am not sure how this will really change the current status quo as far as Google having access to all of its users information and I think the big thing will be whether these developers will gain access to that aggregated data. I see problems ahead if they will gain access to that data. I kinda trust Google but I am not that sure about all these developers who I just don’t “know”.

There are a couple things about OpenSocial which I think developers will really like. For one thing developers will be writing their apps in javascript and html rather than some new programming language. The apps are meant to be portable and the whole system is designed for maximum flexibility. Rather than requiring developers to develop for Facebook’s closed system, developers will basically be adding a layer of social functionality to Google’s existing apps (although the difference between the two platforms on this front is a matter of degree). Facebook has been touted as the operating system of the Web. This move puts that into perspective. Google has a much wider reach than Facebook does and if any Google app could become an extension of your social network it makes Facebook look rather quaint by comparison.

hosts.jpgWhat Google is not doing is creating a new social network. There are a number of host networks which include Orkut (of course), LinkedIn and Plaxo (oh yeah!). Talk about giving Facebook the finger. Leaving the privacy issues aside and the possibility of being inundated with more Facebook style vampire/zombie/pirate/ninja application invites, I think this is going to be a new beginning for a new paradigm of the social web.

The privacy issue is a big concern and we will have to see how this is managed. As concerned as some people are about Microsoft having access to Facebook data (whether that will happen or not), the data Google has is potentially far more valuable and invasive so I would want to see some substantial measures in place to protect my data from anyone I don’t explicitly grant access to (and even there I would want my data used for specific purposes that I authorise).

On the whole, though, I am pretty excited about this. I have been talking about how much I like Plaxo and Orkut for a couple weeks now and to see that they (along with LinkedIn which I also use) will be initial hosts for OpenSocial … well, that just gives me big warm fuzzies.

I bet Microsoft is feeling a little silly right now (or they should be).

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