The Platform Wars Return To The Forefront, What Is Facebook's Position?

With Google announcing the launch of a PC based operating system and the emergence of a fierce battle to become the leading mobile operating system, it’s clear that the platform wars are back in full force. Recently Techcrunch posted impressive statistics regarding Firefox’s growth, highlighting that the browser wars have been revived as well. Over a year and a half ago I argued that the social web platform wars were now taking place and what’s becoming increasingly clear is that there is a single battle for the hearts and minds of developers.

Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed back in 2007 that Facebook was aiming to become the web’s social operating system but it’s clear that this has morphed into a much greater battle. Mobile platforms have emerged as dominant players and we are rapidly witnessing the expanding demand for development resources once again. The only question for developers now is not “Who should I work for?” but instead “What platform should I develop on?”

There are now more opportunities for developers than ever before and with Google preparing to launch their own operating system that’s based on Android, it will make things more interesting to say the least. So as things grow increasingly complicated for developers, what is Facebook doing to make sure they ensure developers return? Ultimately it’s similar things to what other platforms are providing:

  • Reach – While platforms just want “developers, developers, developers”, the developers want “users, users, users”. In theory, the more users the better. While you need a way to generate revenue, the current model is to go after users first and monetize later. If the platform doesn’t provide you with reach then the platform won’t succeed. Facebook provides access to approximately 250 million users and growing which makes it a dominant competitor.
  • Payment integration – Yes, some developers like to sell their software. If you offer a great product then people will often pay for it. The freemium model works and payment platforms are a testament to this. One of the greatest opportunities for monetization of platforms is payment offerings although as one article recently highlighted, Apple still makes the majority of their revenue selling phones, not applications. Facebook is not generating revenue through the sale of a device though so payment integration is an important component.
  • Viral distribution – One of the greatest features of Facebook is the ability to easily share content with your contacts. This feature happens to be one of the most attractive for developers as they need assistance in spreading the word about their new applications.
  • GUI components – Facebook and the iPhone both make it easy to implement user interface components that are standard across applications. These components make it easy for developers to focus on developing and assist them in creating applications without becoming bogged down in the design. Windows and Macintosh were at the forefront of graphical user interface innovation and we are now seeing new sets of interfaces emerge with the new platforms. Facebook is obsessive when it comes to design and their platform components clearly illustrate this.
  • Alternative monetization opportunities – Some developers don’t want to sell their service and instead opt to monetize through advertising, offer-based systems, and new alternative models that have yet to be explored. Platforms need to be open to these alternative monetization strategies if they are going to attract developers. Without these alternative opportunities, the platforms have complete control, something that presents a huge risk to developers.
  • Clearly defined and enforced terms or the removal of authority – Facebook has been battling with the enforcement of their terms since the initial launch of the Facebook platform. As the web becomes the platform though, I’d assume that we will see the decentralization of authority. Instead we will see the emergence of third party reporting systems (some of which already exist) to report abusive applications.

Developers want the ability to write once, run anywhere but competitive forces have prevented this from becoming a reality. Now that competition sides with openness, we are evolving toward an environment in which applications are more portable and in which the value of the platform is directly correlated the user experience. It’s similar to the device wars and it’s a world in which users and developers benefit greatly.

So with this evolution where does Facebook stand? Mark Zuckerberg suggested that they were looking to build the social operating system and then proceeded to acquire the Parakey team who was in the process of building what was assumed to be a web-based operating system. If the company is serious about that initial statement, an announcement should be expected in the near future.

Do you think Facebook will be fine with just being the center of our identities? Does Facebook need to build their own operating system or can they continue to exist independent of the operating systems?