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Expectations Run High for Facebook's Developer Conference

Facebook's F8 conference for external developers is expected to yield major announcements from the company regarding extended and new functionality for its application platform, likely in areas such as search, geolocation, payments and integration with other Web sites.

As usually happens every time Facebook introduces or modifies features in its social networking site, the announcements will likely draw close attention from end users, privacy watchdogs, competitors, entrepreneurs, advertisers and, of course, developers.

Among those eager to hear details of what's new with Facebook's application platform and APIs (application programming interfaces) are Glam Media engineers Justin Bolter and and Emmanuel Job.

Bolter and Job are excited about the possibility that Facebook will broaden external applications' access to site data, in particular if Facebook starts letting users tag status updates as public for the Web at large.

The Glam Media engineers are also interested to find out more about a possible extension of functionality for Facebook Connect, a system that lets external Web sites integrate at different levels and exchange data with the social network.

In addition, they're looking forward to Facebook's stated intention to integrate location capabilities on its site, so that content posted by users can be geo-tagged, which opens up new possibilities for application functionality.

Glam Media, which has 1,500 publishers and sites on its network, uses Facebook Connect and the Facebook Open Stream API for its Tinker.com micro-blogging platform. "We're looking forward to F8," said Job, Tinker Engineering Lead, said in a phone interview.

IDC analyst Al Hilwa believes F8 will be an important event for Facebook because the success of its application platform plays a critical role in Facebook's ability to retain and engage users, and remain the world's most popular social networking site.

"Without applications to crate stickiness, social networking sites may come and go much more quickly in our high-velocity Internet," Hilwa said via e-mail.

For Facebook, it's essential to strike a delicate balance between the privacy of its more than 400 million end users and enhancing and increasing its site's functionality and the data it makes available to external developers and advertisers, he said.

"The elephant in the room for social networking platforms is protecting user privacy while allowing developers to get at the metadata or the streaming event information. In their desperation to monetize these franchises, which of course has been the biggest challenge, they are under great tension to put out more information. But the information can lead to some serious privacy disasters," Hilwa said.

Facebook is no stranger to privacy controversies, having weathered a number of them throughout its history. Facebook is also under competitive pressure from upstarts like Twitter and more established players like Google.

About 1 million developers have created 500,000 external applications for Facebook, most of which are in the categories of entertainment and games, according to Gartner analyst Ray Valdes.

Developers' emphasis on these two categories is understandable, considering the major success some developers like Zynga and Playfish have had, but the potential of the platform remains only partially exploited, Valdes said via e-mail.

"With the Facebook platform, the developer gets, in effect, a blank canvas that can be populated with mainstream Web technologies -- Facebook's dialects of HTML and Javascript -- plus embeddable interaction technologies such as Flash. Developers have not taken full advantage of all degrees of freedom, preferring instead to focus on the social and role-playing game genres," he said.

For example, an underserved area are productivity and workplace applications. "In the past, some developers have tried to apply Facebook platform technology to business-related scenarios, but no one has yet found the magic formula for success in these areas. So the magic formula is likely still out there, waiting to be discovered," Valdes said.

Facebook needs to continue exposing in a systematic and diligent way aspects of the existing site to developers through the APIs, he said. "I expect some interesting announcements at F8."

F8 kicks off at 1 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Wednesday with a keynote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The one-day event will also feature breakout sessions on topics like mobile, games, business strategies for startups, Facebook technology integration, Web design and open source tools. Those interested but unable to attend can follow the proceedings via webcast at the F8 official page.

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