Some opinions on the computer industry

First of all, a disclaimer: These words are the opinion of Mike Fried, a software engineer and internet user, and not the official statements of Microsoft. I don't speak for Microsoft. I speak for myself. However, I think I have an interesting perspective to offer. This posting is provided AS IS with no warranties and confers no rights.

Now that we're clear on this, I was reading the "news" lately. The tagline: "Google CEO Eric Schmidt: Social networks are still too closed". The comment of Google's CEO was that, "If it's not searchable by Google, it's not open, and open is best for the consumer,". Speaking as a consumer, I strongly disagree. I jumped on the social network bandwagon and started accumulating "friends" on Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Geni, and Linked in. If Google were suddenly given all this social networking data to crawl, without the end users' permission (i.e. my/your personal data without my/your permission), then users like me would be up in arms with Friendster, Facebook, etc. I don't want my private information searchable. (Why don't I keep my private information off the internet in general? Because I like to be able to share it with my friends, and these sites provide a mechanism for me to accept/reject who my friends are/who can see it.) I don't trust people across networks. Moreover, the social networking aspects of Friendster which mostly involved being able to introduce yourself (or your friends) to potential dates through mutual friends conflict sharply with the social networking aspects of Linked in, which involves being able to get/give referrals to jobs or learn more/provide information about companies. I might have a couple family members in my Facebook, and I might have a few family, old school buddies, and friends in Linked in, but Facebook is a social network tool/MMORPG, and MySpace is where I go when my latest rocker friend releases a new blog post or album.

Google's CEO is making the complaint that Facebook et all are closed, and I think they are rightly so. Geni being closed is probably off their radar, because it doesn't have nearly enough market share. Anyone who has used Facebook and a couple other social networks knows that what makes Facebook interesting is that the people who run it understand why we use social networks. They have the best photo sharing experience, with the ability to tag people in pictures. They have the best applications. They are the fastest growing/largest social network because they are better than the rest. And part of what makes any social network useful is the fact that the private user data is locked. Also, Facebook simply has the right features. They let you log in and keep a cookie to indefinately keep yourself connected. Others epic fail here. For example: when MySpace emails me that my friend posted a new blog and I click the link, I get sent to a rejection web page that requires me to log in, even though I've checked the box to keep me logged in forever and am already logged in right now in another web browser window. If I could take "my data" elsewhere, how would I do it, and where would I take it? Seriously, the only way to do it would be to join another social network and try to re-create my network there. Well, the different network would have different sets of experiences and have a different purpose, and not all my friends in one network really belong in the other. Not only that, but what makes Facebook a MMORPG is that people gather there and play, even if that is only "twittering" through it. Facebook recently added IM features through the web page. The way that Facebook is expanding functionality and adding features like IM through the page is quickly making it more of a "life portal". The interesting thing about social networks is that they come and they go. There was a social network in 1997 called SixDegrees. I joined it. It went away. What keeps social networks thriving? Activity. I suspect that Geni and Friendster will eventually fail (though Geni might survive). Facebook is a moving target. They have lots of features, and they keep adding new ones, like the new IM features at the bottom of the pages.

The question that is on my mind is: If Google's platform doesn't add value to Facebook, then why should Facebook consider it?

What Google is trying to do is basically become like the Trillian of social networks - the binding factor. Trillian is a remarkably good IM client because it goes deeper into features than just IM. An IM client, however is not a social network platform. The problem which should be obvious to any developer who uses more than 2 social networks is that the features of each network are similar and yet vastly different. You get the least common denominator in a platform when you bridge multiple platforms. This is ever so obvious if you try to write a program to collect the data from all your social networking sites. You will quickly discover how different each site is. The data in each is on their server in a form which gets rendered into human-readable content. The scripts building that content are subject to change at any time, and so the "protocol" which these web pages are using can change as they are human interfaces, not software contracts.

So basically, lets say that Facebook pioneered this space of social networking apps, and it's at version 3 right now, and Google is in Beta, but Google is trying to get everyone to embrace their platform. What must Google do to make OpenSocial succeed? Well, they must get Facebook onboard. Really? Yes. Facebook is the winning network both for the number of users as well as its "richness" (and I hate that word, but it seems to fit well here). I claim it is in Facebook's best interest to not join OpenSocial. It would be wonderful in theory to bridge the gap between all social networks, but in reality, I like that Facebook is the place I go to to play Texas Hold'em poker and get twitter-like status updates on friends. I like that Geni is the place I go to if I want to look at my family tree. I like that my friends who are in bands put their stuff up on MySpace where I can listen to their music. I like to be able to browse the set of people I went to school with on Friendster by School (I'm not paying for this information, when Facebook gives it to me for free). But most of all, I like that most of my friends use Facebook, because Facebook has the best features. It's fun to play "Oregon Trail" with friends or compare movies or political opinions. It's nice to see people's photos and have embedded youtube videos on a friend's wall. Most of my friends are also on one or two other social networking sites, but in my experience Facebook is the one we all update.

So my analysis goes like this: The only way for Google to "win this battle with Facebook" for social networking application development platform is if Facebook has something to lose if they don't join Google. Since Facebook has a lead in terms of time, and is the leader in terms of platform functionality, and the leader in terms of users, I don't see Facebook joining OpenSocial. Can OpenSocial succeed without Facebook?  Sure. It's possible. Do I think that Facebook will be the winner in the Social Networking space? Maybe. Maybe not. It is the clear winner at the moment. I have some issues with each social networking site that I am a member of, but "data portability" can be solved at the client side by a developer like myself writing a browser plug-in to harvest, extract, and analyze the data during visits (i.e. copy/paste). Of course, the data extracted is only as valid as the last time it was updated. If I leave Facebook, I miss the opportunity to see friend's photos and twitter-like status updates. Also, crawling is against the rules, and as Scoble discovered, lands your account disabled, but integrating into a web browser and extracting the data as the end user visits can certainly work across networks without detection (still violating the ToS/EULA), but you only get data you've already seen (basically acting as a web cache), and it gets stale as you don't visit. So Facebook has toys to make you come back and visit, and as long as you keep coming back and don't violate their agreement, you bet it will stay.

Will someone build a better social network than Facebook? It's certainly possible, but I doubt it. Overall, I think that Microsoft investing in Facebook was one of the best moves that the company has made in recent memory.