Facebook De-friends Its App Verification Program

Facebook has abruptly decided to pull the plug on its Application Verification program, which let external developers pay to have their applications certified as exceeding certain requirements.

The company made the announcement on Wednesday evening, as it unveiled a road map of upcoming changes to its application development platform.

"We're retiring the formerly optional Application Verification brand, submission process, fees and badge; the program's higher standards will be required and applications will be subject to review at any time," wrote Facebook official Ethan Beard in a blog post.

David Stillwell, who had his My Personality application verified, expects that the program's closing will reduce his application's visibility.

Although Stillwell got no advance notice from Facebook, the decision didn't surprise him because he felt the company never got enthusiastically behind the program.

"Facebook didn't do a very good job of promoting the program anyway and users didn't know about it, so I can understand why they decided to remove it," Stillwell, who is pursuing a PhD in the U.K., said via e-mail.

Announced in November of last year, the program drew boos early on from critics who felt it would unfairly benefit developers able to afford the review fee, while affecting programmers without deep pockets.

Critics also said that the program put the financial burden on developers for a review process that Facebook should be doing as a matter of course for all external applications on its site.

At the time, Facebook defended the program, characterizing it as an option for developers who wanted their applications to stand out as exceeding the basic guidelines and policies Facebook requires of all applications.

Facebook also argued that the program would promote trust among users who needed extra assurance about the safety of adopting applications built by external developers.

As criticism quieted down and the program started rolling, participating developers reported being generally satisfied with it, and said the benefits of earning the "verified" badge for their applications far outweighed the cost and hassle of submitting them for review.

Now, Facebook has done an about-face with its decision to scrap the program, halting immediately its review process. The review fee -- US$375 for a year's certification, or $175 for students and nonprofits -- will be refunded in full for applications not yet certified, and on a prorated basis for those already approved.

Facebook will yank the Verified Application program badge on Dec.1 from applications that earned it, along with the benefits that came with it, such as higher visibility in the application directory, broader permissions for applications to issue notifications and requests, a $100 credit for developers to advertise on the site and registration discounts to the company's developer events.

The program's standards will now become part of the baseline expectation for all external applications built for Facebook, although Facebook will continue allowing developers to launch applications without prior approval. The company said it reserves the right to review any application at any time using the new, stricter guidelines.

"One of the values of Facebook Platform is that it's open with no barriers to entry. We're not going to change that. What we're doing with new principles and policies is holding applications to the higher standards previously associated with the Verification program. By enforcing more stringent and clear policies across Platform, the goal is that developers will proactively comply with a more trustworthy experience, while being subject to review at any time," a Facebook spokeswoman said via e-mail.

At the moment, Facebook doesn't have details on how many of its about 350,000 externally built applications it plans to proactively review to ensure they are complying with the new, more stringent standards, she said. "We will be scaling our team as well as our tools and technologies as part of this process and believe the result will be a high quality and straightforward process for applications to thrive on Facebook," she said.

The Application Verification program was designed to set apart applications that exceeded Facebook's standards for what the company calls "trustworthiness." This meant that verified applications offered an exceptional user experience, complied with all of the company's terms and policies and used "integration points," such as user-to-user notifications, in an appropriate way.

Some developers who have verified applications are already grumbling about Facebook's decision to end the program on the official discussion forum for Facebook developers. These developers are lamenting the impending loss of benefits, such as the increased directory visibility, and wondering whether Facebook can legally back out of its commitments to them.

In addition to announcing the end of this program, Facebook detailed a roadmap of other upcoming changes for developers over the next six months, including granting developers access to users' e-mail addresses, which is intended to improve communications among them.

Along these lines, Facebook also wants to reduce the way applications communicate with users via notifications and requests, and move those messages to users' news feeds and inboxes. "We believe these steps, combined with providing users with a way to share their email address with applications they trust, will simplify the site and create new long term opportunities for developers," Beard wrote.

Stillwell isn't so sure. These changes in communications lower the viral value of hosting an application on Facebook, putting it almost on par with external Web sites that link up with Facebook and its users using the site's Connect platform, he said. "The list of advantages of building on the Facebook platform rather than on a standalone web site grows thin," Stillwell said.

To increase the visibility of applications that users have installed, Facebook will feature them more prominently on users' home pages, along with bookmarks and dashboards. Facebook will also provide new application analytics tools and data to developers.

Also coming is a new central dashboard for developers called Platform Live Status, with current information about the status of various services of the Facebook application platform, including information about uptime and technical bugs.

Seemingly not addressed in Beard's blog post or in the other messages issued on Wednesday is the upcoming and apparently major modification to the platform's API (application programming interface) that Facebook said in late August it is preparing in order to comply with security concerns raised by the Canadian government.

At the time, Facebook said the API changes will likely require modifications to applications' code bases, so it will precede their formal implementation with what it called "a lengthy beta period."

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