Yahoo is still fighting off Microsoft’s marriage proposal. But it’s open to making more friends.
On March 25, Yahoo, the largest online destination, teamed up with two other Web titans—search goliath Google and leading social network MySpace—to form the OpenSocial Foundation. The not-for-profit, which is scheduled to launch within the next 90 days, is dedicated to preserving open source programming codes that allow Web developers to build applications that work across all major Web sites. “We believe common sets of specifications are beneficial to the developer community at large and enrich the experience of the Web both on and off Yahoo,” said Wade Chambers, Yahoo’s VP of Platforms, in a media conference call.
Google launched the OpenSocial platform in October in hopes of solving two problems created by the increasingly social Web. The first issue concerned developers. Facebook’s May decision to open up its popular real estate to applications from third parties spurred thousands of developers to create programs for the social networking site. The enthusiastic response of Facebook users to the new programs encouraged other social networks to follow suit. Soon most sites were allowing outsiders to create programs for them.
All the opening up, however, presented developers with a dilemma: who to program for? Most social networks had unique codes that demanded developers build programs specifically to work on their site. Most development teams, however, had staffs composed of only a handful of programmers capable of creating just a few such specific applications at a time.
If developers didn’t make their programs work across sites, they risked losing out on valuable audiences who might use their program only if they could get it to work on their favorite Web destination. Worse, developers risked their program failing to get virally distribution because a user’s friends were not all on the same site.
The developers’ dilemma presented a problem for Web site owners as well. If developers had to choose one or two sites to program for, and your site wasn’t on the short list, you could miss out on the hot new program. Web surfers wanting to use a particular widget—such as Slide’s popular photo sharing widget or iLike’s music sharing and discovery service—would potentially ignore your site if that particular application wasn’t available.
Many sites, including Google, found themselves quickly faced with the flipside of the developers’ dilemma. Facebook was already on most developers’ short lists, thanks to the early release of its APIs and its global audience, which now reaches more than 70 million people. Without common codes, MySpace, Yahoo, Google’s Orkut social network, AOL, and myriad other sites would find themselves competing for the remaining slots on individual developers’ lists.
It’s no wonder then that Google, whose own Orkut social network lagged behind MySpace and Facebook in the US, chose to create a common set of codes for developers. It’s also no wonder why MySpace, which opened up comparatively late, quickly signed on.
Despite already being the most popular site on the Web, Yahoo has a lot to gain by joining. The company suffers from a lack of innovation. Several of its social properties, such as Yahoo 360, have failed to take off. Moreover, it has lost some mindshare among young people—those most likely to pass around many developers’ applications -- to hotter social networking properties. By joining OpenSocial Yahoo ensures it doesn’t miss out on some developers’ next great creation. It also gets an opportunity to increase adoption of its own properties such as photo-sharing site Flickr by enabling developers to more easily create programs that spread Yahoo’s offerings onto other popular sites.
Getting on the OpenSocial bandwagon now is particularly important because of where the Web is going. Joe Kraus, Google’s director of product management, sees a future where social applications will live on nearly every site and audiences will take their favorite programs and content wherever they wish. In that world, making sure your content is easily distributable and that your site can support a variety of different programs is key.
Moreover, cute little widgets are quickly evolving into full-fledged programs. It may not seem so bad if your site doesn’t support an application allowing people to turn each other into vampires. But it could be terrible, say, if everyone began using a widget notifying them of important business emails and they couldn’t see alerts when on your site. “In the future we see applications for OpenSocial and the MySpace developer platform moving beyond toys and widgets and becoming real features,” said Steve Pearman, MySpace’s SVP of Product Strategy.
OpenSocial is far from perfect. Developers often still have a lot of work to do to customize their applications so they truly work across all the sites that have signed up. Also, like any open source standard, there is some worry that competing developers will be able to easily copy existing applications built upon the APIs. The other problem with OpenSocial is that it is still far from comprehensive. Microsoft has, notably, not signed on. But, even Yahoo says it would welcome the tech giant’s friendship in this respect. “I think any large platform should be able to participate and we would welcome anyone to participate,” said Chambers.