A few days ago, the top news story on Techmeme was the fact that Google launched Google Friend Connect and Facebook announced the final version of Facebook Connect within minutes of each other. Reading up on both announcements it seems interesting to note how most of the coverage is about who will win the race to dominate the Web as opposed to what end user value is actually being created by these technologies.
It was somewhat depressing until I read Dave Winer's brilliant post Soon it will be time to start over, again which contains the following excerpt
We're now reaching the end of a cycle, we're seeing feature wars. That's what's going on between Facebook and Google, both perfectly timing the rollouts of their developer proposition to coincide with the others' -- on the very same day! I don't even have to look at them and I am sure that they're too complicated. Because I've been around this loop so many times. The solution to the problem these guys are supposedly working on won't come in this generation, it can only come when people start over. They are too mired in the complexities of the past to solve this one. Both companies are getting ready to shrink. It's the last gasp of this generation of technology.
But the next one can't be far away now. It will be exhilirating!!
Remember how great Google was when it first appeared?
Remember how great Netscape was, and before that Apple, and I know you guys won't like this, but Microsoft offered us some great new places to play. I remember finding out that their OS address space in 1981 was 640K. That was a lot to guy who was spending huge amounts of time trying to cram a 256K app into 48K.
The trick in each cycle is to fight complexity, so the growth can keep going. But you can't keep it out, engineers like complexity, not just because it provides them job security, also because they really just like it. But once the stack gets too arcane, the next generation throws their hands up and says "We're not going to deal with that mess."
We're almost there now.
The value of Facebook Connect to Facebook is obvious. They get to become a centralized identity provider for the Web including the benefit of tracking every single time one of their users logs-in on a partner which lets them build an even better advertising profile of their users. Similarly the value to the customers of the sites adopting it seem clear at first. Below are the claimed benefits of Facebook Connect to users from my initial perusal
- One login, multiple sites. No need to create a new account on partner sites.
- Account information such as profile picture, location and other fields on the partner site can be prepopulated from Facebook
- Bring your social graph with you to partner sites.
- Let your friends on Facebook know what you are doing on partner sites. Updates show up on your profile but do not go in your friends' news feeds (they go in their live feed instead).
Where things get interesting is that none of these benefits require a proprietary and centralized approach like Facebook has done. If Facebook implemented OpenID and OpenID attribute exchange, they could have given their users the benefits of #1 and #2 using widely adopted industry standards. For #3, there is the burgeoning Portable Contacts effort to define a set of standard APIs for accessing the social graph that supports the key data portability principles around this information. As for broadcasting your updates from one site to another, FriendFeed has shown how that can be done using standard technologies like RSS, Atom and XMPP.
Ignoring the fact that Facebook Connect is a proprietary and centralized approach instead of being based on open standards, there are still other points worthy of debate. When trying out sites like CitySearch beta with Facebook Connect, the experience is that I am connected with all of my Facebook friends who also use CitySearch. There is the genuine question of whether users really want to use one friends' list across every site regardless of context (e.g. interacting with the exact same people on LinkedIn, MySpace and XBox Live) or whether they want to have universal access to any of their friends lists and bridge them when necessary?
Yesterday on Twitter, I mentioned that Facebook Connect is the wrong direction to go on the Web for the reasons above. I also called Google Friend Connect a misguided "me too" effort for trying to copy Facebook's strategy and glomming an AJAX widget play on top of it. Kevin Marks, an evangelist at Google challenged by statement with the following response
@Carnage4Life the problem for users is re-entering data and restating friends for each app. For developers its becoming social without this
If that is truly the problem, how does the technology in the video below solve the problem any better than the combination of OpenID and Portable Contacts?
As with OpenSocial, Google has fallen in love with its role as a spoiler when it comes to Facebook's platform efforts without stopping to think whether it actually makes sense to be aping Facebook's strategies in the first place. Monkey see, monkey do.
This will be the death of them if they aren't careful. Once you become a follower and define yourself by reacting to others actions, it is hard to step back into a leadership role both in the industry and even within one's corporate culture.
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