Friendster launches developer platform, opens up API

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Friendster logoAs social networks go, MySpace and Facebook have been getting all the love lately. What many people (um, Americans with their heads in the sand) don’t know is that many social networks are thriving. Some, well beyond our borders. San Francisco based Friendster.com was one of the first out of the gate. Then MySpace came to the party, quickly building a 100+ Million user base on the backs of artists and record labels. Many Internet analysts considered Friendster dead in the water. But, as the company’s cited 53 Million registered user base shows, there’s gold in those hills. No, not the hills you or I might trudge over in the good’ol U.S. of A. I’m talking about the hills of Asia, where Friendster is the #1 social networking destination. Let’s not forget the rest of the world, where it makes the Top Ten and is widely considered to be the overall #3 or #4 online community (depending on who’s counting). Bebo.com is #1 in the U.K. Can you guess where they are? San Francisco, of course!

While the social networks were building their platforms for users to communicate with each other, post party invites, send updates, expand their social circles and of course flirt until the wee hours of the morning, hundreds of third-party developers like Slide.com figured out ways to give these users tools to add photos, music, video, games and other oddball and off-the-wall stuff to their profiles. As more applications were created by rag-tag groups of developers, social networks were inundated. Not only were these applications useful to add content, many found ways to completely hack the system and redesign their profile pages. So much so, all that was left was the main sites navigation bar.

Just like Microsoft’s Windows, the world’s most popular operating system, is constantly challenged by hackers, MySpace became the defacto repository for many of these third party hacks, applications and solutions. A few worked pretty well, while other slowed down the load times of MySpace profile pages and created a chaos unseen in the Internet space since AOL and Geocities allowed users to create their own rudimentary Web pages. Remember that?

So, what’s a social network to do in the face of such an onslaught? Facebook decided, if you can’t beat’em, join’em. Once revered for its closed status, which gave university students with an .edu email account full access, the company was forced to open its platform to all users in search of the growth. In doing so, Facebook understood that they’d have to adopt MySpace-like features while keeping their platform clean and free of unnecessary clutter. For clutter was the reason serious Internet users were abandoning MySpace and adopting other networks as their online base. To keep the integrity of the site while allowing outside developers to have fun with the system, Facebook created FBML or “Facebook Mark Up Language.” In laymen terms, they developed an open source application interface protocol (otherwise known as an “API”) for developers to use in order to create applications that would plug-and-play into the larger Facebook Web site. FBML is based on JavaScript and HTML, two common Web languages that are used for the development of Web pages and mini-applications that do fun stuff on a Web page. Most Web pages today are constructed using HTML. Developers use JavaScript to enable features like registration and login or dynamic applications like Calendar features or showing the current time on a web page. There are certainly much more in depth uses of JavaScript, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll leave that to you to figure out.

Before Facebook created FBML, many social networks were trying to restrict the use of the third party applications. After FBML, that strategy seems to have changed completely. Friendster, among others, quickly realized that inaction could mean losing users to other networks. In an odd reversal of fortune, 3rd party developers who created applications for one network faced a critical issue: if you build it for one, you have to build it for all. If each social network crafted a proprietary API, it would be a nightmare to create applications for all. A widget (a mini-application that can be embedded in any Web site, blog, or social network) would have to make sure the application built for MySpace could talk a sister application for Hi5 and both could be fed information from the parent database. Now that there are social networks for everything from music to sex, developers would have to choose carefully which ones to support and which ones to ignore. Of course, on the fast moving Web, dominating real estate is critical. Making a decision to support one network over another could be costly. The question then became: who would create the system for developers to use one API globally, across all Web sites? Well, Google…of course!

Recognizing that there was a need to create a development language that would work across all social networks, Google quietly set out to develop Open Social, a tool set of sorts developers could adopt that would allow for the creation of widgets and other mini-applications that would be write once and read everywhere. When I say, write once, I mean create one product (application) using the Open Social API. Read everywhere means it will work in any Web site, blog or social network that adopts and promotes use of Google’s toolset.

Now, Google wouldn’t do this if they didn’t go out and drum up support for the project from competitors of Facebook, like Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Hi5 and many more. These companies quickly realized, by creating their own proprietary API’s like Facebook had done, might stifle innovation and slow growth of their networks. Using one common standard would be beneficial to all. Cross compatibility will be one of the key drivers of this movement toward an open set of standards.

So, now the fun begins! Friendster, who I’m picking because my friend Jeff is a marketing lackey there (hey Jeff!…just kidding), quickly adopted Open Social and recently announced the release of its first set of instructions for developers to tap into and start building applications.

According to Friendster’s recent press release, which Jeff so kindly furnished and I’ll provide here word for word:

The Friendster Developer Program is designed to provide developers with several key features/benefits including:

  • Freedom to Monetize Applications – Developers can monetize their applications using virtually any model for monetization, and no revenue share with Friendster is required. Unlike other social networks, ads and monetization will be allowed anywhere in the application and are not restricted to rarely-used detail or configuration pages.
  • Open Platform – The Friendster Developer Program includes APIs compatible with those used throughout the industry. As a result, existing applications on other social networks can easily be imported to Friendster. And, existing flash or HTML widgets/applications used on other social networks are also supported on Friendster without requiring developers to invest effort to modify their design or user experience. Additionally, when the OpenSocial APIs are completed and secure, Friendster will support OpenSocial APIs, allowing OpenSocial applications to be used with Friendster.
  • Equal Opportunity – Friendster released its developer program documentation, testing environment and schedule in advance to provide equal opportunity for developers around the world to compete for mindshare and adoption by Friendster’s more than 56 million users. Since that announcement on October 25, developers have had over one month to plan, build and integrate their widgets and applications with Friendster for inclusion in today’s launch.

Friendster users can discover new applications through several existing Friendster features including:

  • “My Network Activity” Module – When a user adds an application, this event will appear in the “My Network Activity” module (that summarizes a user’s activity for their friends in the network), which will virally promote a given application to the user’s friends.
  • Forward to Friend – Members can share a new application with their friends using a number of Friendster’s features, such as: Messages, Bulletins, Comments, Shoutouts, and more.
  • Browsing Profile Pages – Users browsing other profile pages can discover new applications and “grab” and configure them for their own profile page.
  • Fan Profiles – Most developers have a Friendster Fan Profile page to further promote their applications to Friendster users and to maintain an ongoing dialog with their fans to announce enhancements and new applications, and soliciting feedback. (See www.friendster.com/fanprofiles for more information.)

I hope this entree’ into the world of Google’s Open Social API and how Friendster has quickly adopted the tool set to expand its offerings will give you, the reader, some indication of how social networks are turning the tables by opening their networks to open source development. In the past, companies like AOL and Yahoo! had been hesitant to allow third party developers to build applications for their services. By opening up their platforms, Open Social participants are hoping to challenge the notion of the closed network and grow their businesses without having to invest a ton of resources to do so. It will be interesting to see what DJ communities and Web sites adopt Open Social in the future.