Don’t buy ’em, beat ’em. That appears to be Google’s strategy after not outbidding Microsoft for a sliver of Facebook last week: Now the search giant is rolling out APIs for third-party applications that will work not only its own social networking sites, but on a host of other social networking companies’ sites as well.
Google’s OpenSocial, which launches today, is a set of open APIs that will work not only on Google’s also-ran Orkut social network, but on other companies’ sites. Other platforms/companies include Salesforce, LinkedIn, Ning, Hi5, Plaxo, Friendster, Viadeo and Oracle.
The idea is to provide developers like RockYou, Flixster, and Slide with incentives to develop Facebook-like apps on Google’s platform instead of Facebook’s. The fact that Facebook’s apps and data aren’t portable across multiple platforms has been a source of frustration, and apps written for Google’s platform will work not only with Google but across much of the Web.
Google’s strategic goal here is obvious: usurp Facebook’s position as the “operating system” for social networking by marshaling the support of every other social networking site. The user numbers alone will certainly command the attention of developers, at least for a while. But thats different than commanding the attention of Facebook’s users.
From the developer’s perspective, one key unknown (for now) is what kind of business model OpenSocial will offer. One of the chief appeals of Facebook’s open API is that developers can keep all the ad revenue they generate on the site; we’ve been told effective CPMs for more popular apps can run as high as $20. Google could certainly offer the same terms, as it doesn’t need to generate any money from the program, but we don’t know if its platform partners are willing or able to be so generous.
The bigger question: Will apps make Orkut and other sites more attractive to users? Facebook apps have generated an enormous amount of attention — in part because they have been a hit for programmers. But we’re not sure how many of them have made Facebook more attractive to users: Most people are on Facebook because their friends are on Facebook; not because they can throw sheep, turn people into zombies, etc. If you weren’t using Orkut, Ning or Friendster before, will a new set of apps make you use it now?
Related: SAI Facebook Coverage
(For those keeping score, TechCrunch had made early reports about Google’s anti-Facebook strategy in September and earlier this week; the NY Times appears to have run a more complete version of the story Thursday night that prompted Google to drop an embargo.)