Facebook’s platform adds integration to applications

Facebook Platform

Facebook recently launched the latest version of their Platform, which combines their API with FQL and the new FBML. Facebook launched the next version of their platform at their developer’s conference, and accompanied the launch with many partner companies that rolled out applications designed with the platform simultaneously. This was also a huge event for independent developers, many of which got to work immediately on their own Facebook apps. (Thousands are now available) This is a huge event in the history of Facebook, and perhaps the next step in where the hugely-popular social networking site will go. As with any change in a social networking site, this one was met with some resistance and concern, but is it warranted?

The basics

The Facebook API has been around since last year, but has since added many more features. In its first version, there were only a limited number of methods one could call to request data. Early this year, they added FQL, their own SQL-like query language to allow for more flexibility in accessing that data. (In fact, now most of the API calls merely map to FQL queries as well) This newest version has added FBML, Facebook’s own markup language. Just like FQL is related somewhat to SQL, so is FBML to XHTML. Thus, web developers will have no problem adjusting to these Facebook-specific languages. From Facebook’s point of view, this makes them way more popular with developers.

FBML is big because it allows integration of Facebook apps with the main site. Before, Facebook applications were run on the developers’ own sites, and didn’t really hook into the main site. While the backend of the application will still have to be run off another site, data from the app can be neatly hooked into the main site in a variety of places, providing slick integration with Facebook itself. To quote Facebook:

You can hook into several Facebook integration points, including the Profile, Profile Actions, Canvas, News Feed and Mini-Feed.

This effectively turns Facebook apps into “widgets” that add features and functionality to the main site. In this way, users can pick and choose what neat apps they want to use on Facebook. At the same time, Facebook can keep the site neat and clean, because the integration makes it easy to adopt the Facebook “look & feel” for these widgets, preventing Facebook from turning into the graffiti-invested section of the web that MySpace is.

It’s about developers

Besides the ease with with most web developers will be able to learn the use of FQL and FBML, Facebook has also redone their Developer’s Site, making it look more different and separate from the main Facebook site. Most of the information remains the same, but it has been organized and streamlined more, and there are plenty of examples. Facebook also took the time to sign up many launch partners. For example, Last.fm quickly launched their Facebook application, and it’s quite popular.

Even more interesting is that Facebook is letting application developers keep the revenue made from ads served through their application. I guess this is a win-win situation, since by using the app, people stay on Facebook even more, so in the end, they make more money as well through their own ad system. This allays some of my fear outlined in my previous article about Facebook competing with services created through their API.

The OS of the web?

If this really is the case, then it signals a new direction for Facebook. No longer content to be just a popular social networking site, they now want to be a platform for all sorts of applications that will automatically have a wide audience. In this way, you can view Facebook as the “OS” and all of these widgets as the applications created for the users, in this case, the membership of Facebook. Users can easily pick and choose which apps they want to use, so nothing is forced upon users. Even “core” Facebook features such as “Notes” are placed under the same heading of “Applications” alongside user-created ones, so you can even opt-out of these.

This will have the overall effect of making Facebook the central place for social-networking. No more will users have to wait for Facebook itself to add features to the site, as if there’s enough need, some enterprising web developer will add the functionality. Want a calendar? 30boxes has one. (I’m waiting for a Google Calendar widget) Overall, I’m really impressed by the technical ideas behind all of this.

MySpace syndrome

One huge concern is whether or not allowing users to add any widgets they want to their profile will result in Facebook’s quality deteriorating to MySpace-like levels. No doubt that was a huge concern of the Facebook team, as they have built a successful social network that many users see as being more mature than MySpace. For the most part, they’ve accomplished this – integration with the main site has been done in a controlled way to ensure that widgets keep with the look & feel of the site, and don’t allow someone to turn their profile into an ugly affront to the visual sensory system.

However, users can still tend to overpopulate their profile with too many widgets, making things look cluttered. And, there’s nothing stopping anyone from making drawing widget. But perhaps the most unwanted feature was the addition of “trackers”. Many MySpace profiles now feature these – basically a link or an image to a third-party server that once loaded, can tell the profile owner who has visited their profile and how many times – a sort of form of reverse-stalking. Facebook took steps to ensure that this was not possible with their widgets.

This hasn’t stopped anyone from making such a widget for this purpose. However, this widget requires a user to click a link on the profile page in order to be tracked. In order to do this, they try to attract you to click this link because it sends you to a page that also shows who else has viewed the profile. It would seem that people’s capacity for voyeurism is boundless. However, as with all apps, you don’t have to add it, and you can even block or restrict it if you want.

In the end

All things considered, this will be beneficial for Facebook’s bottom line. I seriously doubt they’ll lose any significant number of users from this, and will certainly gain more and keep the existing user base happy and interested in what they’re doing. I think they learned from last year’s uproar over the introduction of News Feed that the loudest dissent starts right after the addition, and dies down soon after. News Feed is now an accepted part of Facebook, and I don’t think anyone would want to go without it.

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