I’ve been reading recently that a number of social networking sites are rushing to launch [or re-launch] a widgets platform given the success of the Facebook platform. There have been announcements about a MySpace platform which claim that
Advertising can be included on the application pages (called control pages) and developers will keep 100% of the revenue. Ads may not be placed within widgets that appear on MySpace pages, however.
There have been similar announcements from LinkedIn and Google. The problem is that every one of these widget platforms being proposed by the various social networking sites are incompatible. This means that Web developers has to build a separate application for each of these sites using proprietary technologies (e.g. FBML) and proprietary APIs (e.g. FQL). Since very few Web developers or Web companies will be able to support significant applications on every one of these platforms, the question then becomes “Which platform should you bet on?” and “How do you make the decision to bet on a platform.”
Right now the gold standard in widget platforms for social networking sites is the Facebook platform. There are several reasons for this and competitors planning to build similar platforms need to meet the following criteria.
Monetization: Facebook encourages developers to monetize their widgets by placing ads in their widgets. Although Facebook has not actively helped developers by providing an ad platform, there is now a healthy marketplace of Facebook ad networks that developers can choose from. It has even been rumored that Google will be getting in the Facebook ad provider game. +1 to Facebook.
Distribution and Reach: A big problem you’ll face when you’ve built a great product is that it is a lot harder than you expect for people to actually find out about and try your product. This means any avenue that increases the potential reach and distribution of your product is bringing money in your pocket. Not only does Facebook have several million active and engaged users, the Facebook platform also provides several mechanisms that encourage the viral spread of applications which developers consistently rave about. No other social networking site’s widget platform even comes close. +1 to Facebook.
Access to User Data: Social networking sites are all about connecting people to the people they care about and their interests. This means that applications built on these platforms should be able to determine a user’s friends and interests to be able to give an optimal experience. The Facebook platform is unprecedented in the arena of widget platforms when it comes to the amount of user information it exposes to applications with methods like friends.get, users.getInfo, photos.get and even marketplace.getListings. +1 to Facebook.
Ability to Build an Integrated and Immersive Experience: One place where the Facebook platform really changed the game is that widgets weren’t just relegated to a tiny box on the user’s profile like they are on other social networking sites but instead developers could build full blown applications that integrated fully into the Facebook experience. It’s a lot easier to keep users engaged and build non-intrusive advertising into your application if your entire application doesn’t have to fit in some 4” X 4” box on the user’s profile. +1 to Facebook.
Applications Shielded from the “Winner’s Curse” of Web Development: The more successful your application becomes on the Web, the more money you have to spend on server related resources. Everyone knows the story of iLike scrambling to borrow money and servers because their Facebook application was more successful than they anticipated. Since a lot of widget developers are not richly funded startups or big companies, they may not be able to bear the costs of actually building a successful Web application without help from the platform vendor. A number of platform vendors provides hosting for static files and data storage APIs although none go as far as full blown application hosting...yet. +0.5 to Facebook.
From my perspective, if a social networking site’s widget platform doesn’t meet all criteria, then it can’t be considered a real competitor to Facebook’s platform. And as a developer if I had to choose between that platform and Facebook’s, there would be no choice to make.
Now if you can afford multiple development efforts building widgets/applications for several disparate social networking site platforms, the list above is a good starting point for prioritizing the which social networking site’s to build widgets/applications for first.
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