Google Seeks Social Networking High Ground

Google's attempt to grab moral high ground in the social networking development is a step in the right direction, according to industry analysts.

Google late last week said it released a set of "open APIs" that will enable developers to build applications to run across a broad range of social networking environments.

The advantage of this "OpenSocial" effort for developers of both consumer and enterprise apps, would be the theoretical ability to write an application once that could then run across a wide swath of social networking environments.

Google claimed backing not only from such social networking powers as LinkedIn, Friendster, Orkut, Plaxo, and Xing, but from Oracle and Salesforce.com as well. Not among the names of supporters: Microsoft and FaceBook. Microsoft just bought a $240 million for a 1.6 percent stake in the popular social networking leader, either outbidding or outfoxing Google, which was also interested in Facebook.

A developer sandbox will soon be online at http://sandbox.orkut.com to enable developers to start playing with and testing the APIs, Google said. As of November 1, three APIs, sample code, documentation and online support were available from the Google OpenSocial site. With user permission, developers can use the APIs to access user profile information, friend lists and shared activities to start planning their ideas.

Developers want volume distribution and portability, so Google's plan makes sense. There is a huge potential audience among all those LinkedIn, Plaxo, Orkut users out there, said Dana Gardner, principal with Inter-Arbor Solutions, a Gilford, NY market analysis firm.

"If you create a widget or a storefront or commerce site, you don't want it to run just in FaceBook. You want it at all the sites, just like Crate & Barrel wants its stores in all the malls," Gardner said. "Social nets can come and go. Nothing locks you in as a user or a developer. You're not writing to an operating system but to a social network platform on the Web."

While Microsoft lured developers into the Visual Studio toolset with the promise of the huge addressable Windows installed base, there is no such ubiquity in online social networks.

"These social nets popped up like mushrooms in the spring rain and can disappear just as fast. They are much more fickle than an operating system, so tools that will let a developer address a wide variety of them are important," Gardner said.

But a lot of work needs to be done. "This is important because it's Google and in the consumer world that's huge. Google hasn't really made a firm or aggressive answer to the whole social networking phenom--Facebook etc.--so, when it looks at its assets, why not attack with openness?" said Mike Gotta, analyst with The Burton Group.

Corporate developers, on the other hand, will need to see some set of standards and rules, he added. "This may be open, but there's no standards body, not that standard bodies are a panacea. If you look at what Jabber has done with XMPP, they have an open standard. Corporate developers will want to know what the governance body is behind it, how the standard will evolve, who'll kick the tires, and what happens if people take the process in a different direction."

XMPP is the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol used in many instant messaging scenarios.

Traditional tech players like IBM, Microsoft and developers within other companies will need to figure out how these APIs and frameworks comply with security, identity and compliance mandates. "Those are the kinds of things that tend to spoil the party," Gotta said.

But, if the social networking rage continues, more corporate developers will be required to put their applications in front of these new audiences, Gardner said. That is why OpenSocial bears watching, Gardner said.

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