Google Battles Facebook With OpenSocial Networking Platform

Google describes OpenSocial as a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) for building applications that will plug into a number of different social networking sites, allowing Web developers "write once, run anywhere" ubiquity. Rather than a platform itself, OpenSocial is a protocol. As Google explains in the leaked release: "OpenSocial gives developers of social applications a single set of APIs to learn for their application to run on any OpenSocial-enabled Website."

As with any standardization effort, OpenSocial's success will depend on whether companies with critical mass in the social networking field choose to adopt it. The New York Times reports that OpenSocial's backers included LinkedIn, hi5, Friendster, Plaxo and Ning, as well as Google's own social networking service, Orkut.

Notably absent from the list are MySpace and Facebook, the two dominant networking sites. Facebook's search-engine impenetrability (profiles are only viewable to logged-in, connected users) has been a longstanding frustration to Google and a competitive advantage for Facebook. With ambitions to become the default platform for social networking applications and close ties to Microsoft, which just elbowed Google aside in a fight to serve as Facebook's ad-platform infrastructure partner, Facebook is unlikely to participate in a Google-led effort to increase social-networking application portability. For those in the top positions, as MySpace and Facebook currently are, a "walled garden" approach is more advantageous than supporting standardization efforts.

Google argues that OpenSocial will benefit both users and developers by lowering the barriers to application development and deployment, thereby encouraging more extensive development. Google plans to open up an OpenSocial development sandbox tomorrow, concurrent with its release of OpenSocial's APIs and development resources.

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Initially a playtoy for students, social networking sites are becoming important to the broader development community both because of the networking opportunities they offer and the vast audience they can deliver. Facebook claims an active user base of nearly 50 million, and MySpace reports 110 million users signing on at least monthly.