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Still a Horse Race as Social-Networking Sites Jockey for Position

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Back in September, I blogged about the proliferation of social-networking sites and wondered whether we'd ultimately end up with a few powerful networks or lots of smaller and more niche sites. After a few months of fairly frantic activity by big players such as Facebook and Google, I'm still not sure. Most media reports are selling it as a battle between Google and Facebook, much as they've promoted the idea of Google and Microsoft scrapping over the future of software. (And with Microsoft's ownership stake in Facebook, it's a variation on a theme.)

 

As News.com blogger Caroline McCarthy writes, Google didn't create as much thunder as might have been expected with its introduction of OpenSocial, a collection of common application interfaces (APIs) that will allow developers to create "universal" applications that can be used on any participating social site.

 

While just about every major site that isn't Facebook has pledged to use OpenSocial, the APIs aren't yet ready and have a vague "early 2008" time frame attached to them. In the meantime, Bebo, Friendster and LinkedIn have also invited developers to use their APIs.

 

And Facebook, which has allowed developers to create applications on its site since May, upped the ante by agreeing to let its APIs be used to build apps for other sites -- "in effect, creating an OpenSocial of its own," as McCarthy writes. A Forrester Research analyst quoted in her blog says that developers will migrate to the platform they like best.

 

In theory, OpenSocial should get the nod, says the chief platform architect at Plaxo, because it's built on well-known existing standards such as HTML and JavaScript. And of course, there's the cachet of the Google brand. Still, writes McCarthy, Facebook has a significant head start and seems to be well-liked by developers.

 

The bigger issue -- and the one that points to no clear answer to my earlier "many vs. few" question regarding networking sites -- is the disparity of such sites. As Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang tells McCarthy:

 

Applications will never work the same over any community. The reason is, every community has different technographics (the hardware, software, and code used) and different demographics. They use the tools differently. To expect that one widget will work cleanly over all platforms is overoptimistic.

 

Indeed, people tend to use the sites in markedly different ways. Facebook and LinkedIn have made moves to become more businesslike (in the former case) and more social (in the latter). They have both been successful to some degree. As Rob Enderle notes in his year-end wrap-up blog, "A Lot of Apple at the Core of 2007's Best Products":

 

At the beginning of the year, I didn't know anyone on Facebook. By the end, virtually everyone I knew was on it.

 

Fortune editor David Kirkpatrick, a well-known Facebook fan, gives some props to LinkedIn in a recent column, mentioning that many of his former college classmates, Fortune colleagues and other professional acquaintances are flocking to the site. He also likes its new features, especially a snazzier interface.

 

Even MySpace, often dismissed as an online high school hangout, is making a bid for broader appeal with a slew of new features, reports USA Today. Among them: the ability to create multiple profiles and tailor them to different audiences, a free Internet phone service and, oh yeah, membership in OpenSocial.

 

Still, for most folks there tends to remain a pretty clear delineation between the sites. APIs alone may not be enough to change that.

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