The battle for the soul of social networking

November 1, 2007: 12:35 PM ET

By Lindsay Blakely

Google's new OpenSocial initiative is just the opening shot in what promises to be a long fight with Facebook.

The OpenSocial alliance, which seeks to create common standards for social networking applications, has so far signed up Google's (GOOG) Orkut social network -- it's big in Brazil -- as well as Hi5, LinkedIn, Ning, Friendster and business software makers Salesforce and Oracle.

"I view this as Version 1.0 of a fairly extended conflict that's going to happen over the next few years," says Ray Valdes, research director of Internet platforms at Gartner. "This was an important move by a major player but by itself it's not going to make or break any individual network."

Google announced Thursday afternoon that it's adding MySpace and Bebo to its list of partners. MySpace, the largest social network with over 200 million registered users, will double the number of users developers can access with their applications through OpenSocial.

The question is whether Google will have the pull to bring Facebook into the fold.

Facebook has been tremendously successful in attracting developers to its own proprietary platform, which explains why the company is absent from Google's OpenSocial network. At last count, Facebook had collected almost 7,000 widgets that let members do everything from discovering new music to engaging in virtual food fights.

Another big name not being openly social with Google is Yahoo (YHOO), which has been struggling to make its mark in social networking. It recently decided to close its personal profile network, Yahoo 360, choosing to focus on a new network called Mash. Currently invitation-only, Mash lets members modify the look of their friends' profiles. Mash is considered the testing ground for a much larger concept that Yahoo is calling the "universal profile," or a social network that will integrate other features like Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Answers.

When the company reported its third quarter earnings on Oct. 16, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang said two of his strategic goals were to become the "starting point" for the most consumers on the Web and to offer the most desirable platform for third-party developers. On Wednesday, a company spokeswoman declined to say whether Yahoo will join OpenSocial, but did remark that the industry needs "common sets of socialization standards."

For their part, developers welcome OpenSocial because it relies on relatively easy-to-use programming tools like HTML and Javascript to create widgets. Mark Kantor, a co-creator of the Graffiti drawing tool application for Facebook, is already talking to Google about OpenSocial."The value proposition is pretty clear here," he says. "Hopefully if it works, we'll develop something once and get access to all of the networks."

Google's OpenSocial officially launches today with widgets from RockYou and Slide, as well as music and movie applications iLike and Flixter. Most of these applications can already be found on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and other social networks - a sign that developers are agnostic when it comes to which sites they'll work with.

"Facebook is open to a point and they're criticized for it but it makes sense," says Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter service that lets friends send each real-time updates of their activities. Twitter built an application on Facebook and Stone says the company is working on one for OpenSocial.

Gartner analyst Andrew Frank says the evolution of the Internet may be one indication of the how the battle between the social networks will play out.

"One of the things that made the Internet so successful was that it was based on common standards," Frank says. "With Facebook you have a return to proprietary programming."

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