About a year ago I wrote up a definition of a social operating system in my post The Difference between a Social Network Site, a Social Graph Application and a Social OS which I think is worth revisiting today. In that post I defined a Social OS as

Social Operating System: These are a subset of social networking sites. In fact, the only application in this category today is Facebook.  Before you use your computer, you have to boot your operating system and every interaction with your PC goes through the OS. However instead of interacting directly with the OS, most of the time you interact with applications written on top of the OS. Similarly a Social OS is the primary application you use for interacting with your social circles on the Web. All your social interactions whether they be hanging out, chatting, playing games, watching movies, listening to music, engaging in private gossip or public conversations occurs within this context. This flexibilty is enabled by the fact that the Social OS is a platform that enables one to build various social graph applications on top of it.

In retrospect, the fundamental flaw with this definition is that it encourages services that want to become social operating systems to aspire to become walled gardens. The problem with walled gardens on the Web is that they shortchange users. This is because the Web is about sharing and communicating with people from all over the world while walled gardens are about limiting you to interacting with people (and content) that are part of a particular online service or Web site. Thus walled gardens limit their users.

Jeremy Zawodny had a great post about this entitled There is no Web Operating System (or WebOS) where he wrote

Luckily, two of my coworkers caught on to what I was saying and managed to help put it into context a bit. First off was Matt McAlister (who runs YDN, the group I work in). In The Business of Network Effects he does a good job of explaining how businesses and services in a network are fundamentally different from those which are isolated islands.

Recalling a brief conversation we had a couple weeks ago, he says:

Jeremy Zawodny shed light on this concept for me using building construction analogies.
He noted that my building contractor doesn't exclusively buy Makita or DeWalt or Ryobi tools, though some tools make more sense in bundles. He buys the tool that is best for the job and what he needs.
My contractor doesn't employ plumbers, roofers and electricians himself. Rather he maintains a network of favorite providers who will serve different needs on different jobs.
He provides value to me as an experienced distribution and aggregation point, but I am not exclusively tied to using him for everything I want to do with my house, either.
Similarly, the Internet market is a network of services. The trick to understanding what the business model looks like is figuring out how to open and connect services in ways that add value to the business.


The web is a marketplace of services, just like the "real world" is. Everyone is free to choose from all the available services when building or doing whatever it is they do. The web just happens to be a far more efficient marketplace than the real world for many things. And it happens to run on computers that each need an operating system.

But nobody ever talks about a "Wall Street Operating System" or a "Small Business Operating System" do they? Why not?

Ian Kennedy followed up to Matt's post with The Web as a Loose Federation of Contractors in which he says:

I like Jeremy's illustration - an OS gives you the impression of an integrated stack which leads to strategies which favor things like user lock-in to guarantee performance and consistency of experience. If you think of the web as a loose collections of services that work together on discreet projects, then you start to think of value in other ways such as making your meta-data as portable and accessible as possible so it can be accessed over and over again in many different contexts.

Bingo again.

No matter how popular a particular website becomes it will not be the only service used by its customers. So it follows that no matter how popular a social networking site becomes, it will not be the only social networking service used by its customers or their friends. Thus a true Social Operating System shouldn't be about creating a prettier walled garden than your competitors but instead about making sure you can bring together all of a user's social experiences together regardless of whether they are on your site or on those of a competing service. If I use Twitter and my wife doesn't, I'd like her to know what I'm doing via the service even though she isn't a Twitter user. If my friends use Yelp to recommend restaurants in the area, I'd like to find out about the restaurants even though I'm not a Yelp user. And so on.

With the latest release of Windows Live, we're working towards bringing this vision one step closer to reality. You can read more about it in the official announcement and the accompanying blog post. I guess the statement "life without walls" also applies to Windows Live. Wink

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