Google, Other Supporters Mark OpenSocial's First Year

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OpenSocial supporters celebrated on Thursday what they consider major progress in this project to establish a common set of standard APIs and tools for developing social networking applications.

MySpace, an early supporter, held an event in its San Francisco office to mark the project's first birthday. Representatives from other vendor backers attended, as well as about 300 developers, and, of course, staffers from Google, which launched OpenSocial in November 2007. There will be a party Thursday evening, birthday cake and all.

Using OpenSocial, developers have made more than 7,500 applications, which in turn have been installed more than 315 million times in over 20 social networking Web sites. Among the technology highlights is the significant enhancement of the API, now in version 0.8, and the delivery of a server-side REST [Representational State Transfer] component, important for mobile and enterprise applications that need to tap backend servers.

There is also an open-source reference implementation of the OpenSocial API called Shindig, overseen by the Apache Software Foundation and designed to let Web site owners implement OpenSocial easily in a matter of hours.

What hasn't been accomplished is the rather important task of convincing Facebook to support OpenSocial, a major gap considering the company operates the most popular platform for social networking applications.

As long as Facebook stays away, OpenSocial's vision of making developers' lives easier by simplifying the porting of applications to different sites will remain at best partially fulfilled.

Facebook's reticence may flow from competitive concerns. Many consider OpenSocial an attempt by Google to undercut the momentum of Facebook's platform, which was first out of the gate in May 2007 and quickly became a hit with developers.

To stress that OpenSocial wasn't intended solely for its own benefit, Google later spun off the project into a non-profit foundation in which backers like MySpace, Yahoo, Hi5 and others are also involved.

However, Facebook remains at-best non-commital, if not outright uninterested. Asked for comment about OpenSocial, a Facebook spokeswoman said via e-mail: "Facebook is a supporter of open source and sees value in any contributions the [Open Social] Foundation may make to the industry. Although Facebook does not belong to the Foundation, the company remains focused on advancing Facebook Platform to benefit the developer community and help users communicate and share information more efficiently."

The doors are open for Facebook, said Allen Hurff, MySpace senior vice president of engineering and the new chairman of the OpenSocial Foundation.

David Glazer, a Google engineering director closely involved with OpenSocial, has praise for the Facebook platform but adds: "Developers really want to have fewer ways to build applications and the Web always tends to vote with its feet on a small number of ways to solve any particular problem."

Moreover, the OpenSocial Foundation, with its broad industry support and its community-driven process for advancing the tools and APIs, offers more participation to developers to have a say, according to Glazer.

"Developers care a lot about knowing that any standard they bet their livelihood on is one they have influence over and that can't be steered for the benefit of any one vendor," Glazer said.

With or without Facebook's participation, OpenSocial is delivering on its goal, said Luke Rajlich, co-founder and COO of My Mini Life, which operates a social networking Web site and offers an application of the same name.

OpenSocial has made it much easier for My Mini Life to port its eponymous application to a variety of social networking sites that support the project, including Google's Orkut, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5 and Ning, he said. The company built its first application for the Facebook platform, before OpenSocial was available.

"There are some differences between OpenSocial containers but we're able to deploy in new containers pretty rapidly. It has helped us grow more rapidly than we could have otherwise," said Rajlich, using the term "container" to refer to the OpenSocial implementations of different Web sites.

"It would have taken a lot more effort without OpenSocial," he added. "We can focus more on improving the user experience because we don't have to spend a lot of time retooling the application to work in different social networks."

However, Suhail Doshi, a student at Arizona State University who has built OpenSocial and Facebook applications, said the Facebook platform "wins hands down" in terms of functionality for development.

"This is sort of the nature when you've been around longer and you don't have to deal with meeting the demands of other big player social networks," Doshi said via e-mail. "There's a lot of gridlock and arguing over what should be in the specification and what should be prioritized. Facebook is allowed to iterate faster on theirs."

If Facebook holds out and an industry battle emerges over which platform will end up as the preferred standard, the key to win will be openness, minimal restrictions and strong APIs, said Doshi, who worked as an intern last summer at Slide, one of the biggest makers of applications for social networks.

"I would put my money on Facebook in the long run, but all the application developers are dependent on each network. Developing on OpenSocial is basically not putting all your eggs in one basket which is generally a good choice," Doshi said.

Whatever happens, OpenSocial will continue pushing forward. Coming in early 2009 is version 0.9 of the APIs, which will include the new OpenSocial Markup Language (OSML), designed to make it technically simpler to create JavaScript applications.

Foundation Chairman Hurff would like to see makers of IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) like Microsoft and Adobe make it easier to build OpenSocial applications inside their products. This would encourage the creation of more robust, sophisticated OpenSocial applications, something MySpace would welcome in its site, he said.

"Next year, when we talk at the Open Social second anniversary, there is no question that rich applications will have come to the MySpace Development Platform and Open Social," Hurff said. For example, he envisions versions of office productivity applications like Google Docs and the upcoming Web version of Microsoft Office to be available within MySpace, which students could take advantage of, he said.

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