announced their "open platform" in May 2007, it suddenly became all the rage. Third party web app developers rushed to integrate their apps into this increasingly popular social network platform - and who could blame them? It makes sense for startups to have a presence on a platform that has tens of millions of users. Plus, Facebook promised a more open experience than its arch-rival, the Rupert Murdoch-owned MySpace. As Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the F8 launch in May, "at Facebook, we're pushing to make the world a more open place".When Facebook
But how open is Facebook, really? Turns out, not that much.
In researching this article, I discovered that there isn't much argument over whether Facebook is open or closed. Most agree that it is not, at heart, an open platform. But there is certainly disagreement over how open or closed it is; and therefore whether Facebook is ultimately good or bad for the Web. Some say that Facebook is as closed a platform as AOL was, in the early days of the Net. In this post we'll explore that theme - and try to determine whether Facebook will suffer the same fate as AOL in the 90's.
Position 1: Facebook is Bad
Let's first look at the argument that Facebook is not only not open, but is ultimately bad for the Web. Jason Kottke perhaps represented this position best, with a post at the end of June entitled: Facebook is the new AOL. The post's title clearly implies that Facebook circa 2007 is as much a walled garden (i.e. closed platform) as AOL was back in 1994. Kottke's argument is that instead of web apps plugging into Facebook, it should be the other way round: i.e. web apps should "run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want." In a follow-up post, Kottke clarified that "the platform is great for Facebook, but it's a step sideways or even backwards (towards an AOL-style service) for the web."
Kottke made some great points: that most Facebook data is private (you need to be a member to access it) and that it's not indexed by Google or other search engines. Indeed, in both respects, Facebook is more closed than MySpace!
Walled Garden Pic: Alex Eckford
Position 2: Facebook is Good
a thorough post extolling the virtues of Facebook. Note that he doesn't say that the platform is open; nevertheless his position is that Facebook is overall good for Web developers and startups. He says "the Facebook API enables outside web developers to inject new features and content into the Facebook environment." He goes on to argue that Facebook's development platform is more sophisticated than MySpace's 'embedding', because Facebook provides "a full suite of APIs" to developers, it provides easy distribution and allows third parties to earn money off their Facebook apps. Andreessen makes some very valid points - in summary, that the Facebook platform is great for developers and also for users.Marc Andreessen has
Why Facebook Isn't Open
Facebook ultimately is a closed, proprietary system. Primarily this is because Facebook doesn't use existing Web standards for mark-up or database language. Instead of using HTML and SQL, Facebook uses two "variants" - called FQL and FBML. The official reason for the variants is that they offer more functionality and integration within the Facebook environment - which is no doubt true, however it also of course means your apps can only run in Facebook. As Andreessen noted, the upshot is that "Facebook's own code and functionality remains closed and proprietary."
What is FBML? Dare Obasanjo described it well: "The markup language [FBML] is a collection of "safe" HTML tags like blockquote and table, and custom Facebook-only tags like fb:create-button, fb:friend-selector and fb:if-is-friends-with-viewer."
Facebook is not an open platform, let's get that straight. However it is a very usable, flexible and highly functional platform. These are positive things, but I'm inclined to agree with Kottke's position that ultimately, it's not a step forward for the Web.
Overall I liked Andreessen's term for all this: "living in Facebook's world". That is precisely what the Facebook platform is - a developer-friendly platform that mimics the Web (e.g. using FBML instead of HTML). It's attractive to developers, because so many people are using Facebook and its growth shows no signs of slowing. And developers and startups can make serious coin from the Facebook platform.
Facebook is an excellent web development platform - there is significant activity and innovation happening on it (which is why we're devoting a whole week to Facebook on R/WW). But in the end, the data isn't out in the open and developers must adhere to Facebook standards (FMBL, FQL) as well as some Web standards (REST APIs). So Facebook is not open, really.
I guess the real question is: does it matter? Well the Web's history gives us the answer to that. Yes it does matter, because when any company controls a closed, proprietary Internet platform - history shows that it ends in hubris (e.g. AOL, Microsoft). Facebook doesn't control social networking yet, far from it. But it's feasible that they will in future, if/when MySpace is vanquished.
What do you think - Facebook platform, good or bad?