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Google Seeks Social Networking High Ground

'OpenSocial' is Google’s response to Microsoft/Facebook alliance.

Google Inc.'s attempt to grab moral high ground in social networking development is a step in the right direction, say industry observers.

Just one week after losing out to Microsoft in gaining an alliance with social networking behemoth Facebook, Google responded rapidly early this month by releasing a set of "open APIs" that will enable developers to build applications that run across a broad range of social networking environments.

The advantage of this "OpenSocial" effort -- for developers of both consumer and enterprise apps -- is the theoretical ability to write an app once that could then run across a wide swath of social networking environments.

Google claims backing not only from such social networking powers as LinkedIn Corp., Friendster Inc., Orkut, Plaxo Inc. and Xing AG, but from Oracle Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc. as well. Not among the names of supporters: Microsoft and Facebook. Microsoft just bought a 1.6 percent stake -- for $240 million -- in the popular social networking leader, either outbidding or outfoxing Google, which was also interested in Facebook.

A developer sandbox will soon be online at http://sandbox.orkut.com to enable developers to start playing with and testing the APIs, Google said. As of Nov. 1, three APIs, sample code, documentation and online support were available from the Google OpenSocial site. With user permission, developers can use the APIs to access user profile information, friend lists and shared activities to start planning their ideas.

Developers want volume distribution and portability, so Google's plan makes sense. There's a huge potential audience among all those LinkedIn, Plaxo and Orkut users out there, says Dana Gardner, principal analyst with Interarbor Solutions LLC, a Gilford, N.H., market analysis firm.

"If you create a widget or a storefront or commerce site, you don't want it to run just in FaceBook. You want it at all the sites, just like Crate & Barrel wants its stores in all the malls," Gardner says. "Social nets can come and go. Nothing locks you in as a user or a developer. You're not writing to an operating system, but to a social network platform on the Web."

Fickle Market
While Microsoft lured developers into the Visual Studio toolset with the promise of the huge addressable Windows installed base, there's no such ubiquity in online social networks.

"These social nets popped up like mushrooms in the spring rain and can disappear just as fast. They're much more fickle than an operating system, so tools that will let a developer address a wide variety of them are important," Gardner says.

"Google hasn't really made a firm or aggressive answer to the whole social networking phenom -- Facebook, etc. -- so when it looks at its assets, why not attack with openness?" says Mike Gotta, analyst with the Burton Group.

Corporate developers, on the other hand, will need to see some set of standards and rules, he adds: "Corporate developers will want to know what the governance body is behind it, how the standard will evolve, who'll kick the tires and what happens if people take the process in a different direction."

Traditional tech players like IBM Corp., Microsoft and developers within other companies will need to figure out how these APIs and frameworks comply with security, identity and compliance mandates. "Those are the kinds of things that tend to spoil the party," Gotta says.

But, if the social networking rage continues, more corporate developers will be required to put their applications in front of these new audiences, according to Gardner -- and that's why OpenSocial bears watching, he says.

About the Author

Barbara Darrow is Industry Editor for Redmond Developer News, Redmond magazine and Redmond Channel Partner. She has covered technology and business issues for 20 years.

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