Last November, when Google launched Open Social we asked readers if Facebook would join Google's platform. The results were split right down the middle, but as we get farther from the Open Social launch, and the two sites continue to launch competing APIs (Google FriendConnect vs. Facebook Connect, for example -- the former banned by Facebook), that seems less and less likely. This is becoming a social networking cold war according to Duncan Riley.

Even though the battle for social networking supremacy is a fight between Facebook and MySpace, the social networking arms race is really being played out between Facebook and Google. Google has demonstrated the unique ability to bring rival social networks together around its proposed open standard APIs, such as Open Social, FriendConnect, and the Social Graph API. Google has built up its own little iron curtain with MySpace, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Ning, and the Google-owned Orkut to prop up its open source platform initiative. (Don't bother trying to follow the Cold War analogy all the way through -- it doesn't really work.)

Facebook is now planning to follow Google's lead and open source their platform. Previously, Facebook's platform technology only powered an app development platform on one site outside its own -- that of rival social networking site, bebo (recently acquired by AOL). An open sourced platform means that any social network could implement Facebook applications. More details should emerge in the next couple of days, according to TechCrunch, who broke the story.

Two questions immediately spring to mind following this news: 1. Does this help users? 2. Do platforms even matter?

Does An Arms Race Benefit Users

The short answer here is: no. Exposing key parts of the social networking experience as open source projects seems like it should be beneficial to users, but for as much as the companies involved talk about openness, there is clearly a lot at stake here. Google and Facebook certainly want some amount of control over user data (so far, major players here have only paid lip service to data portability) and social applications. The latest round of developments in the social networking API world have seemed a lot like a series of power grabs.

As Steve O'Hear wrote yesterday on ZDNet, "One widely supported and open standard, not two, would be in the interests of the industry as a whole."

Do Platforms Even Matter?

A quick look at the app galleries on Facebook, MySpace, or any other mainstream social network might lead you to say, "Who cares? All these apps are trivial junk anyway." And that might not be a false statement -- we even noted in January that Facebook users seemed to be losing interest in applications, and in November we argued that Facebook's users and user experience trump any app platform.

But Facebook's coming new profile design is clearly reminiscent of an operating system. As Facebook tries to become the mainstream everything, control over the dominant social application development platform on the web ends up mattering a lot.

Conclusion

Try as it might to shed its "fun" image by adding more granular privacy controls, and cleaning up its profile design, Facebook is still associated with "college socializing," the same way MySpace is still associated with high school (even though both web sites count users above college age as their fastest growing areas). One major strategic advantage that Google has gained via its Open Social iron curtain is that it has hooks in different types of social networks -- high school, college, business, international, regional, or anything in between (via Ning). That's a major selling point for social app developers choosing a platform.

Unfortunately, a platform arms race benefits no one except the eventual winner (if there is one). What would benefit users is a single, open platform standard, and a real commitment to data portability by all social networks.