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Microsoft Eyes Social Software Development

Microsoft’s recent deal with Facebook could foretell broader use of social networking software within companies.

Facebook recently took a page from Microsoft's playbook when it announced plans to provide companies and developers with an application development platform for its popular social networking Web site.

In fact, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company's 23-year-old co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, told attendees at his company's first developer conference that, by mirroring the Redmond software giant's decades-old strategy of encouraging developers to write applications for its operating systems, he aims to make Facebook the Microsoft of social software.

"Until now, social networks have been closed platforms," Zuckerberg said at the conference, which drew an estimated 750 programmers and 65 partner developers. "We're going to end that."

Integration Potential
The new Facebook Platform is designed to let developers integrate their applications with the Facebook social networking Web site. Launched in beta in August 2006, the original platform allowed developers to pull data from the site; the enhanced version allows for a deeper level of integration.

Microsoft has been advertising on the Facebook Web site for years; the relationship now extends to include support from Microsoft's developer division. Also, Facebook supports Microsoft's new Silverlight cross-platform browser plug-in, and the two companies have partnered on the Facebook Developer Toolkit to provide tools for coders using Microsoft's Popfly, a Web-dev tool for non-developers, and its Visual Studio Express simplified Windows development environment.

Microsoft's own developer base uses the Facebook network extensively, says Dan Fernandez, lead product manager in Microsoft's non-professional tools group. Currently, hundreds of Microsoft-oriented groups are Facebook members, he tells RDN. "If our developer base is interested, we're interested," he says.

It would be hard not to be interested in a social network with approximately 24 million users and an estimated 100,000 new registrations a day. Facebook is part of a new generation of companies that have put social software on the enterprise radar, says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Charlene Li.

"One of the biggest problems companies have is finding their own experts," Li says. "People within the company who know something about a particular topic. They might not be in the same department -- maybe not even in the same building. How do you find them? Social software has the potential to solve that problem by making it possible for people to publish what they know and what they pay attention to."

Li sees Microsoft's current support of Facebook as primarily a technology play. The Redmond software giant wants its platforms, applications and tools to continue to be relevant to new and emerging platforms.

'Internet Time, Squared'
Although Facebook is evolving into an appealing platform for creating user-directed, rich Internet applications, its power to draw third-party developers may lie in the warp-speed software distribution model it has spawned. "It's Internet time, squared," Fernandez says. "You share an application with 10 friends, and those 10 friends share with 10 friends, and pretty soon you have an explosion."

It's this aspect of the Facebook model -- the social component -- that's most likely to sound alien to an enterprise, but actually enables rapid-fire distribution, Fernandez points out. (Zuckerberg characterized this "social graph," the set of network connections and relationships that make up the system, as Facebook's core.)

Facebook's potential as a distribution network should appeal even to enterprises with little interest in software development, Fernandez adds. "An enterprise may not want to create its own cool applications," he says, "but it might want to expose its data on a network like Facebook, so that the users can create interesting applications or views of that data. Without doing much, it could enable users to generate applications for its content, and leverage the scale of the social graph."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.


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