OpenSocial – Is Opening Up the Answer?

I’ve been reading a bunch of posts about Google and friends launching the Open Social. So far, my favorite posts are this one, this one, and this one. Overall, I am skeptical (are you surprised?) that simply “opening up” is the recipe for victory. A few thoughts arranged in some rough form.

At the end of the day, developers care about increasing the audience for their applications and/or making more money. At the end of the day, end-users (also known as normal people) care about a great user experience and a compelling services.

With these goals in mind, here are a few thoughts about the open social movement:
1. OpenSocial is a set of APIs, not an actual product – Despite all of the speculation about what it will be, I think the press releases are pretty clear about what it won’t be. What’s being contemplated is a set of APIs that will make integration social data easier and allow developers to pull from a wider variety of sources. It’s not actually a product or service in and of itself. The onus will still be on the community to build cool stuff that makes use of the platform. And the underlying data has to actually be useful – this alliance has to have profile data about people and entities that are actually interesting to developers.

2. Open systems tend to work best when competing against truly closed products. There are a lot of posts on the web that keep citing the “fall” of AOL and the triumph over the web. Two quick things I think bear mentioning. If being valued at $20 billion recently is a “fall” then I bet a lot of companies would be happy to fall. AOL is no longer the force it used to be, but it hasn’t exactly disappeared. A better example is the case of open source software in the enterprise. In the case of OSS, the vendors were so intent on maintaining control that there was a real market opportunity for more open entrants. Facebook is not completely open, but it’s certainly more open than MySpace. It will be interesting to see if an extremely open system can beat an open system.

3. Having open APIs does not remove the need to build really great products. Openness is a product decision. Being more open than your competitors does not guarantee success. It doesn’t guarantee adoption. I do think, though, that it gives you more flexibility to be clever about how you integrate with others. Simply opening up does not remove the requirement to build products that take advantage of that openness to build better products and services.

One of the undertones in a lot of the blog posts I’ve read is that new upstarts on the Facebook platform haven’t been able to break through to dislodge RockYou or Slide. Naturally, finding a new pasture in which to compete where you can be one of the first-mover launch applications is appealing. But at the end of the day, this open coalition has to deliver on its promises to developers (openness = more opportunity to acquire users or make money) and end-users (openness = better user experiences and more compelling applications) or it won’t work.

I think it will be really interesting to see how this all pans out. We’re clearly in the early days of this.