Over the past few days I've been mulling over the recent news from Yahoo! that they are building a Facebook-like platform based on OpenSocial. I find this interesting given that a number of people have come to the conclusion that Facebook is slowly killing it's widget platform in order to replace it with Facebook Connect.

The key reason developers believe Facebook is killing of its platform is captured in Nick O'Neill's post entitled Scott Rafer: The Facebook Platform is Dead which states

When speaking at the Facebook developer conference today in Berlin, Scott Rafer declared that Facebook platform dead. He posted statistics including one that I posted that suggests Facebook widgets are dead. Lookery’s own statistics from Quantcast suggest that their publisher traffic has been almost halved since the new site design was released. Ultimately, I think we may see an increase in traffic as users become educated on the new design but there is no doubt that developers were impacted significantly.

So what is Scott’s solution for developers looking to thrive following the shift to the new design? Leave the platform and jump on the Facebook Connect opportunity.

The bottom line is that by moving applications off of the profile page in their recent redesign, Facebook has reduced the visibility of these application thus reducing their page views and their ability to spread virally. Some may think that the impact of these changes is unforeseen, however the Facebook team is obsessive about testing the impact of their UX changes so it is extremely unlikely that they aren't aware that the redesign would negatively impact Facebook applications.

The question to ask then is why Facebook would knowingly damaging a platform which has been uniformly praised across the industry and has had established Web players like Google and Yahoo! scrambling to deploy copycat efforts? Alex Iskold over at ReadWriteWeb believes he has the answer in his post Why Platforms Are Letting Us Down - And What They Should Do About It which contains the following excerpt

When the Facebook platform was unveiled in 2007, it was called genius. Never before had a company in a single stroke enabled others to tap into millions of its users completely free. The platform was hailed as a game changer under the famous mantra "we built it and they will come". And they did come, hundreds of companies rushing to write Facebook applications. Companies and VC funds focused specifically on Facebook apps.

It really did look like a revolution, but it didn't last. The first reason was that Facebook apps quickly arranged themselves on a power law curve. A handful of apps (think Vampires, Byte Me and Sell My Friends) landed millions of users, but those in the pack had hardly any. The second problem was, ironically, the bloat. Users polluted their profiles with Facebook apps and no one could find anything in their profiles. Facebook used to be simple - pictures, wall, friends. Now each profile features a zoo of heterogenous apps, each one trying to grab the user's attention to take advantage of the network effect. Users are confused.

Worst of all, the platform had no infrastructure to monetize the applications. When Sheryl Sandberg arrived on the scene and looked at the balance sheet, she spotted the hefty expense that was the Facebook platform. Trying to live up to a huge valuation isn't easy, and in the absense of big revenues people rush to cut costs. Since it was both an expense and users were confused less than a year after its glorious launch, Facebook decided to revamp its platform.

The latest release of Facebook, which was released in July, makes it nearly impossible for new applications to take advantage of the network effect. Now users must first install the application, then find it under the application menu or one of the tabs, then check a bunch of boxes to add it to their profile (old applications are grand-daddied in). Facebook has sent a clear message to developers - the platform is no longer a priority.

Alex's assertion is that after Facebook looked at the pros and cons of their widget platform, the company came to the conclusion that the platform was turning into a cost center instead of being away to improve the value of Facebook to its users. There is evidence that applications built on Facebook's platform did cause negative reactions from its users. For example, there was the creation of the "This has got to stop…pointless applications are ruining Facebook" group which at its height had half a million Facebook users protesting the behavior of Facebook apps. In addition, the creation of Facebook's Great Apps program along with the guiding principles for building Facebook applications implies that the Facebook team realized that applications being built on their platform typically don't have their users best interests at heart.

This brings up the interesting point that although there has been a lot of discussion on how Facebook apps make money there haven't been similar conversations on how the application platform improves Facebook's bottom line. There is definitely a win-win equation when so-called "great apps" like iLike and Causes, which positively increase user engagement, are built on Facebook's platform. However there is also a long tail of applications that try their best to spread virally at the cost of decreasing user satisfaction in the Facebook experience. These dissatisfied users likely end up reducing their usage of Facebook thus actually costing Facebook users and page views. It is quite possible that the few "great apps" built on the Facebook platform do not outweigh the amount of not-so-great apps built on the platform which have caused users to protest in the past. This would confirm Alex Iskold's suspicions about why Facebook has started sabotaging the popularity of applications built on its platform and has started emphasizing partnerships via Facebook Connect.

A similar situation has occurred with regards to the Java platform and Sun Microsystems. The sentiment is captured in a Javaworl article by Josh Fruhlinger entitled Sun melting down, and where's Java? which contains the following excerpt

one of the most interesting things about the coverage of the company's problems is how Java figures into the conversation, which is exactly not at all. In most of the articles, the word only appears as Sun's stock ticker; the closest I could find to a mention is in this AP story, which notes that "Sun's strategy of developing free, 'open-source' software and giving it away to spur sales of its high-end computer servers and support services hasn't paid off as investors would like." Even longtime tech journalist Ashlee Vance, when gamely badgering Jon Schwartz for the New York Time about whether Sun would sell its hardware division and focus on software, only mentions Solaris and MySQL in discussing the latter.

Those in the Java community no doubt believe that Java is too big to fail, that Sun can't abandon it because it's too important, even if it can't tangibly be tied to anything profitable. But if Sun's investors eventually dismember the company to try to extract what value is left in it, I'm not sure where Java will fit into that plan.

It is interesting to note that after a decade of investment in the Java platform, it is hard to point to what concrete benefits Sun has gotten from being the originator and steward of the Java platform and programming language. Definitely another example of a platform that may have benefited applications built on it yet which didn't really benefit the platform vendor as expected.

The lesson here is that building a platform isn't just about making the developers who use the platform successful but also making sure that the platform itself furthers the goals of its developers in the first place.

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