A few months ago Michael Mace, former Chief Competitive Officer and VP of Product Planning at Palm, wrote an insightful and perceptive eulogy for mobile application platforms entitled Mobile applications, RIP where he wrote

Back in 1999 when I joined Palm, it seemed we had the whole mobile ecosystem nailed. The market was literally exploding, with the installed base of devices doubling every year, and an incredible range of creative and useful software popping up all over. In a 22-month period, the number of registered Palm developers increased from 3,000 to over 130,000. The PalmSource conference was swamped, with people spilling out into the halls, and David Pogue took center stage at the close of the conference to tell us how brilliant we all were.

It felt like we were at the leading edge of a revolution, but in hindsight it was more like the high water mark of a flash flood.

Two problems have caused a decline the mobile apps business over the last few years. First, the business has become tougher technologically. Second, marketing and sales have also become harder.

From the technical perspective, there are a couple of big issues. One is the proliferation of operating systems. Back in the late 1990s there were two platforms we had to worry about, Pocket PC and Palm OS. Symbian was there too, but it was in Europe and few people here were paying attention. Now there are at least ten platforms. Microsoft alone has several -- two versions of Windows Mobile, Tablet PC, and so on. [Elia didn't mention it, but the fragmentation of Java makes this situation even worse.]

I call it three million platforms with a hundred users each (link).  

In the mobile world, what have we done? We created a series of elegant technology platforms optimized just for mobile computing. We figured out how to extend battery life, start up the system instantly, conserve precious wireless bandwidth, synchronize to computers all over the planet, and optimize the display of data on a tiny screen.

But we never figured out how to help developers make money. In fact, we paired our elegant platforms with a developer business model so deeply broken that it would take many years, and enormous political battles throughout the industry, to fix it -- if it can ever be fixed at all.

So what does this have to do with social networking sites? The first excerpt from the post where it talks about 130,000 registered developers for the Palm OS sounds a lot like the original hype around the Facebook platform with headlines screaming Facebook Platform Attracts 1000 Developers a Day.

The second excerpt talks about the time there became two big mobile platforms, analogous to the appearance of Google's OpenSocial on the scene as a competing platform used by a consortium of Facebook's competitors. This means that widget developers like Slide and RockYou have to target one set of APIs when building widgets for MySpace, LinkedIn, & Orkut and another completely different set of APIs when building widgets for Facebook & Bebo. Things will likely only get worse. One reason for this is that despite API standardization, all of these sites do not have the same features. Facebook has a Web-based IM, Bebo does not. Orkut has video uploads, LinkedIn does not. All of these differences eventually creep into such APIs as "vendor extensions". The fact that both Google and Facebook are also shipping Open Source implementations of their platforms (Shindig and fbOpen) makes it even more likely that the social networking sites will find ways to extend these platforms to suit their needs.

Finally, there's the show-me-the-money problem. It still isn't clear how one makes money out of building on these social networking platforms. Although companies like Photobucket and Slide have gotten a quarter of a billion and half a billion dollar valuations these have all been typical "Web 2.0" zero profit valuations. This implies that platform developers don't really make money but instead are simply trying to gather a lot of eyeballs then flip to some big company with lots of cash and no ideas. Basically it's a VC funded lottery system. This doesn't sound like the basis of successful and long lived platform such as what we've seen with Microsoft's Windows and Office platforms or Google's Search and Adwords ecosystem. In these platforms there are actually ways for companies to make money by adding value to the ecosystem, this seems more sustainable in the long run than what we have today in the various social networking widget platforms.

It will be interesting to see if the history repeats itself in this instance.

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