Facebook's Inevitable Openness

An interesting phenomenon is beginning to take place. One year ago, Facebook released the first social platform ever to be built on top of a large social network site. The implications were significant and the launch helped fuel continued growth of the site. Within months, Google announced the OpenSocial initiative which was eventually assigned to a third-party organization so that the standard wouldn’t have a tainted image.

As the months passed, one platform after the other has launched and OpenSocial applications have now been viewed by millions of people. The catalyst for this entire movement was Facebook and one year later, Facebook has open sourced their platform. While the open-source version is big news and should not be under-valued, I believe that Facebook faces a bigger issue which is in essence a race against itself.

When the company first released their platform a year ago, thousands of developers flocked to build applications on top of the platform and while this was one of the largest web-developer movements ever, it was somewhat short-lived as new standards began to emerge. While the movement continues, it is being attacked on all sides and it will force Facebook to reevaluate their position as the most innovative social platform.

Next week Apple will announce the release of their highly anticipated iPhone and with the release will be a shift of development resources from other areas of innovation. One of the primary areas that will most likely be hit is the social development space. As mobile devices become the native platform of social interaction (in my own opinion), Facebook, MySpace and other large social network sites could fall behind.

Not being completely open will soon become a competitive disadvantage. This is not to say that millions of users on Facebook will suddenly flee the site. It is just to say that more alternatives (and potentially better alternatives) will begin to show up with increasing frequency. The best solution for Facebook (and competing social platforms) to weather the storm? Open up even more!

Facebook’s mobile platform is extremely limited in its current form and that’s not the only thing lacking for Facebook. Their messaging system, advertising analytics, application directory and a number of other areas are also lacking. It’s not that Facebook isn’t working on these things, it’s just that they have invested their resources in what they consider to be more important areas.

The reality is that Facebook will find that no matter how much money they have in the bank, there is no way that they can innovate faster than the overall market. Later this morning I will be posting on Social Times about one company that is innovating faster than Facebook in one of these areas. This won’t be the last company to do so. The best move for Facebook is to continue opening up while protecting user privacy.

As long as users can control what sort of access other applications have, all will be fine. If Facebook tries to continue limiting developer access to user data, they are going to lose in the long run. Yesterday Google announced that the Android platform will be 100 percent open source meaning that all applications running on your phone will have access to all your data just as all applications that currently run on your computer have access to all your data (for the most part).

Facebook’s limiting of developer access to user data (including emails and phone numbers) is going to hurt them in the long-run. The race is on to become the most open social platform. Unfortunately Facebook, MySpace and the other platforms are instead racing to build bigger walled gardens. While this strategy will work in the short-term, in the long-term it is destined for failure. Why not suck it up and go all the way?

Facebook is probably the most innovative company in this space currently but they are in a race which inevitably ends in complete openness. Do you think users would revolt if Facebook opened up access to user information all the way? What if Facebook enabled users to choose what data they want to provide including their phone number and email address?