Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the opinions, thoughts, strategies or future intentions of my employer. These are solely my personal opinions. If you are seeking official position statements from Microsoft, please go here.
One of the Google folks working on OpenSocial sent me a message via Facebook asking what I thought about the technical details of the recent announcements. Since my day job is working on social networking platforms for Web properties at Microsoft and I'm deeply interested in RESTful protocols, this is something I definitely have some thoughts about. Below is what started off as a private message but ended up being long enough to be it's own blog post.
In general, I personally prefer the Facebook platform to OpenSocial. This is due to three reasons
- There is no alternative to the deep integration into the Web site's user experience that is facilitated with FBML.
- I prefer idiomatic XML to tunnelling data through Atom feeds in ways that [in my opinion] add unnecessary cruft.
- The Facebook APIs encourage developers to build social and item relationship graphs within their application while the OpenSocial seems only concerned with developers stuffing data in key/value pairs.
Given the varying features and user interface choices in social networking sites, it is unsurprising that there is no rich mechanism specified for adding entry points to the application into the container sites user interface. However it is surprising that no user interface hooks are specified at all. This is surprising given that there are some common metaphors in social networking sites (e.g. a profile page, a friends list, etc) which can be interacted with in a standard way. It is also shocking that Google attacked Facebook's use of "proprietary markup" only to not even ship an equivalent feature.
The People and Friends Data API
The People and Friends Data API is used to retrieve information about a user or the user's friends as an Atom feed. Each user is represented as an
atom:entry which is a PersonKind (which should not be confused with an Atom person construct). It is expected that the URL structure for accessing people and friends feeds will be of the form
Compare the following response to a request for a user's information using OpenSocial with the equivalent Facebook API call response.
<entry xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xmlns:georss='http://www.georss.org/georss' xmlns:gd='http://schemas.google.com/g/2005'>
<link rel='thumbnail' type='image/*' href='http://img1.orkut.com/images/small/1193601584/115566312.jpg'/>
<link rel='alternate' type='text/html' href='http://orkut.com/Profile.aspx?uid=17583631990196664929'/>
<link rel='self' type='application/atom+xml' href='http://sandbox.orkut.com:80/feeds/people/14358878523263729569'/>
<gd:extendedProperty name='lang' value='en-US'/>
Below is the what the above information would look like if returned by Facebook's users.getInfo method
<users_getInfo_response xmlns="http://api.facebook.com/1.0/" xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" xsi:schemaLocation="http://api.facebook.com/1.0/ http://api.facebook.com/1.0/facebook.xsd" list="true">
I've already mentioned that I prefer idiomatic XML to tunnelling data through Atom feeds. Comparing the readability of both examples should explain why.
The Activities Data API
A number of social networking sites now provide a feature which enables users to see the recent activities of members of their social network in an activity stream. The Facebook news feed, Orkut's updates from your friends, and the Windows Live Spaces what's new page are all examples of this feature. The OpenSocial Activities Data API provides a mechanism for OpenSocial applications to access and update this activity stream as an Atom feed. All of the users activities or all activities from a specific application can be accessed using URIs of the form
Currently there is no reference documentation on this API. My assumption is that since Orkut is the only OpenSocial site that supports this feature, it is difficult to produce a spec that will work for other services without it being a verbatim description of Orkut's implementation.
There are some notes on how Orkut attempts to prevents applications from spamming a user's activity stream. For one, applications are only allowed to update the activity stream for their source directly instead of the activity stream for the user. I assume that Google applies some filter to the union of all the source specific activity streams before generating the user's activity feed to eliminate spam. Secondly, applications are monitored to see if they post too many messages to the activity stream or if they post promotional messages instead of the user's activities to the stream. All of this makes it seem difficult to see how one could specify the behavior of this API and feature set reliably for a diverse set of social networking sites.
The Persistence Data API
The OpenSocial Persistence API allows applications to store and retrieve key<->value pairs that are either user-specific or are global to the application. An example of the former is a listing of company name and stock ticker pairs while an example of the latter is a user's stock portfolio. The feed of global key<->value pairs for an application can be accessed at a URL of the form
http://<domain>/feeds/apps/<appID>/persistence/global for the entire feed and
http://<domain>/feeds/apps/<appID>/persistence/global/<key> if seeking a particular key<->value pair. User-specific key<->value pairs are available at the URL of the form
This is probably the least interesting aspect of the API. A simple persistence API like this is useful for applications with simple storage needs that need to store user preferences or simple textual data that is needed by the application. However you aren't going to use this as the data storage platform for applications like iLike, Flixster or Scrabulous.
However I will add that an Atom feed seems like a horrible representation for a list of key<->value pairs. It's so bad that the documentation doesn't provide an example of such a feed.
Hosting OpenSocial Applications
The documentation on hosting OpenSocial applications implies that any site that can host Google gadgets can also host OpenSocial applications. In practice, it means that any site that you can place a <script> element on can point to a gadget and thus render it. Whether the application will actually work will depend on whether the hosting service has actually implemented the OpenSocial Service Provider Interface (SPI).
Unfortunately, the documentation on implementing the OpenSocial SPI is missing in action. From the Google site
To host OpenSocial apps, your website must support the SPI side of the OpenSocial APIs. Usually your SPI will connect to your own social network, so that an OpenSocial app added to your website automatically uses your site's data. However, it is possible to use data from another social network as well, should you prefer. Soon, we will provide a development kit with documentation and code to better support OpenSocial websites, along with a sample sandbox which implements the OpenSocial SPI using in-memory storage. The SPI implements:
- Adding and removing friends
- Adding and removing apps
- Storing activities
- Retrieving activity streams for self and friends
- Storing and retrieving per-app and per-app-per-user data
The OpenSocial website development kit will include full SPI documentation. It will provide open source reference implementations for both client and server components.
I assume that the meat of the OpenSocial SPI is documentation is just more detailed rules about how to implement the REST APIs described above. The interesting bits will likely be the reference implementations of the API which will likely become the de facto standard implementations instead of encouraging dozens of buggy incompatible versions of the OpenSocial API to bloom.
In general I believe that any effort to standardize the widget/gadget APIs exposed by various social networking sites and AJAX homepages (e.g. iGoogle, Netvibes, Live.com, etc) is a good thing. Niall Kennedy has an excellent series of articles on Web Widget formats and Web Widget update technologies that shows how diverse and disparate the technologies that developers have to learn and utilize when they want to build widgets for various sites. Given that Web widgets are now a known quantity, the time is ripe for some standardization.
That said, there are a number of things that give me cause to pause with regards to OpenSocial
A common practice in the software industry today is to prefix "Open" to the name of your technology which automatically gives it an aura of goodness while attempting to paint competing technologies as being evil and "closed". Examples include OpenDocument, OpenID, OpenXML, OAuth, etc. In this case, OpenSocial is being positioned as an "open" alternative to the Facebook platform. However as bloggers like Shelley Powers, Danny Ayers and Russell Beattie have pointed out, there isn't much "open" about OpenSocial. Russell Beattie asks in his post Where the hell is the Container API?
Would people be jumping on this bandwagon so readily if it was Microsoft unilaterally coming up with an API, holding secret meetings geared towards undercutting the market leader, and then making sure that only those anointed partners get a head start on launch day by making sure a key part of the API isn't released - even in alpha. (It obviously exists already, all the partners have that spec and even sample code, I'm sure. The rest of us don't get access yet, until the GOOG says otherwise).
Let's say we ignore that the process for creating the technology was not "open" nor have key aspects of the technology even been unveiled [which makes this more of a FUD announcement to take the wind out of Facebook's sails than an actual technology announcement], is the technology itself open? Shelley Powers points out her post Terms that
Google has announced a technology platform that is every bit as proprietary as Facebook's. The only difference is that they've cut deals with some companies to utilize their proprietary platform while Facebook's platform is only for use on the Facebook site. If Zuckerburg announces next week that the Facebook platform is freely implementable by any 3rd party Web site, where does that leave OpenSocial? After all, the Facebook platform is actually a proven, working system with complete documentation instead of the incomplete rush job that OpenSocial clearly is right now.
There are all sorts of forums for proposing and discussing open Web technologies including the IETF, W3C, OASIS and even ECMA. Until all of the underlying technologies in OpenSocial have been handed over to one or more of these standards bodies, this is a case of the proprietary pot calling the proprietary kettle black.
One of the things that comes along with OpenSocial is that Google has now proposed GData as the standard protocol for interacting with social graphs on the Web. This is something that I've been worried about for a while and I've written a couple of blog posts to address this topic because it is not clear that the Atom Publishing Protocol upon which GData is based works well outside it's original purpise of editing blog posts and the like. I'm not the only one that feels this way.
Danny Ayers wrote in his post Open? Social?
However the People Data API is cruel and unusual. It first stretches Atom until it creaks with "each entry in the People or Friends feed is a PersonKind"; then gives a further tug (a person's name is represented using atom:title) then extends it even more (a person's email is gd:email) and finally mops up all the blood, sweat and dribble:
Key value parameters - gd:extendedProperty - "As different social networks and other sources of People data have many different named fields, this provides a way for them to be passed on generally. Agreeing on common naming conventions is to be decided in future."
Got to admire the attempt, but (to mix the metaphorical namespaces) silk purses don't make very good sow's ears either.
In addition, AtomPub geek extraordinairre, Tim Bray wrote in his blog post entitled Web3S
If you decide you totally can’t model your world as collections of entries populated with hyperlinks to express relationships, well then I guess APP’s not for you. And at the level of engineering intuition, I have to say that a monster online address book does feel different at a deep level from most online “publications” (I thought that was why we had LDAP... but I repeat myself).
Now that we have AtomPub/GData as a de facto standard protocol for accessing various kinds of non-microcontent data on the Web as a reality, I'm done debating its suitability for the task since the horse has already left the barn. However I will continue to ask when will GData be RFC 5023 compliant?
At the end of the day, the most disappointing thing about OpenSocial is that it doesn't really further the conversation about actual interoperability across social networking sites. If I use Orkut, I still need a MySpace account to interact with my friends on that site. Some people have claimed that OpenSocial will enable routing around such lock-in via applications like iLike and Flixster which have their own social networks and thus could build cross-site social networking services since they will be hosted on multiple social networking sites. However the tough part of this problem is how a hosted application knows that carnage4life@windowslivespaces is the same user as DareObasanjo@Facebook? It seems OpenSocial completely punts on satisfying this scenario even though it wouldn't be hard to add this as a requirement of the system. I guess the various applications can create their own user account systems and then do the cross-site social network bridging that way, which sucks because it will be a lot of duplicative work and will require users to create even more accounts with various services.
Given that the big widget vendors like iLike, Slide and RockYou already have their users creating accounts on their sites that can be tied back to which social networking site the user utilizes their widgets on, this might be a moot point. Wouldn't it be mad cool if the Top Friends Facebook application could also show your top friends from MySpace or Orkut? I suspect the valuation of various widget companies will be revised upwards in the coming months.
There is no mention of a user-centric application authorization model. Specifically, there is no discussion of how users grant and revoke permission to access their personal data to various OpenSocial applications. Regular readers of my blog are familiar with my mantra of putting the user in control which is why I've been so enthusiastic about OAuth. Although there is some mention of Google's Authentication for Web Application in the documentation, this seems specific to Google's implementation of OpenSocial hosting and it is unclear to me that we should expect that this is the same model that will be utilized by MySpace, Bebo, TypePad or any of the other social networking sites that have promised to implement OpenSocial. On the other hand, Facebook has a well thought out applications permission model and I would have thought it would be quite easy to simply reverse engineer that and add it to the OpenSocial spec than to simply punt on this problem.
Despite these misgivings, I think this is a step in the right direction. Web widget and social graph APIs need to be standardized across the Web.
PS: I've subscribed to the Google OpenSocial blog. So far there have only been posts by clueless marketing types but I'm sure interesting technical information that addresses some of the points above will be forthcoming.