Thanks for the push, Google, now leave Facebook to it

Facebook’s surprise announcement that they will encourage adoption of their Platform standard by other social networks has of course been interpreted as a challenge to OpenSocial. Just as Google announced their free and open standard from a position of weakness, Facebook have plainly decided to share their Platform from a position of potential weakness – the fear that a standard shared by every other network would be irresistible to developers and users.

At first glance, we imagine a world filled with Platform clones would signify victory for Facebook. But compare that scenario to a world where OpenSocial has been adopted by all social networks including Facebook. Pride aside, how is Facebook’s competitiveness enhanced by the ubiquity of their platform over the ubiquity of Google’s standard across all networks? Either way, all social networks would share the same mechanism for hosting third-party applications. The only difference is who invented it. But who cares?

Recall the unnecessary debate between Blu-ray and HD DVD. Two separate camps flexed their muscles claiming that theirs was the superior of two largely indistinguishable standards. It’s a fight to the death – that kills consumers in the cross-fire as much as it is likely to kill the competition.

Surely Facebook isn’t stupid enough to start the same type of war?

Facebook is not offering an indistinguishable standard to OpenSocial. Facebook believes correctly that Platform offers a far more robust – and moreover existent – standard than Google’s rush-job. At least for social networks on Facebook or Bebo’s scale, the server-based might of Platform is the correct answer. In the long tail of smaller “Web 2.0” communities, perhaps Javascript widgets will find their place.

Google’s alternative to Facebook’s innovative Platform was announced without so much as a hat-tip to Facebook’s ingenuity. And worse, it was drafted in ignorance of the Platform’s tried and tested design.

Sure, Facebook might prefer if no other social networks get around to incorporating third-party apps. Its next best offer would be for each competitor to build its own inferior mechanism – although even Facebook would be tempted by the thought that a unified standard could enhance the whole social networking sector. Anyway, Google has already blown the whistle on separate standards, and large enough groups of rivals are likely to stick together that Facebook should be scared to stand alone.

What Facebook seems to have announced today is what Google should have tried to negotiate in the first place, instead of hiding from Facebook while cooking up OpenSocial. Except Facebook would have been unlikely to throw their jewels to the opposition without the threat of OpenSocial. At the end of all this, if the only thing that the OpenSocial announcement has done is draw Facebook into sharing their platform for the benefit of the entire social networking sector, perhaps the consumer is the winner after all.

[Dan Lester is a cross-platform specialist, on Wednesdays anyway.]