A year in the life of the Facebook platform

15,000 applications, 350,000 developers

Almost one year ago Facebook announced the Facebook Platform, unleashing an assault of applications on unsuspecting users. At first those applications were silly, even bothersome. But now they are beginning to provide real value to groups of connected users. Currently there are approximately 15,000 applications, and 350,000 developers have signed up so there will probably be more on the way.

I've used the platform since that first day. Despite the fact that the documentation and examples were a bit unclear, the initial platform was fairly well thought out. The APIs allowed developers to do a lot in terms of interacting with both Facebook and users. And Facebook has done a good job of rolling out new features.

There have been some issues with the frequent releases of API sample files; among them errors and missing functions from version to version. The most frequent problem I experienced initially was extremely slow response times from Facebook, up to several seconds to query a single item of user information. The use of iframes rather than FBML helped, but Facebook seems to have improved response times.

The Facebook Platform acts as a sort of sandbox, limiting what developers can do. For example, JavaScript is very limited and code cannot execute automatically; users must click on a link to start the execution. In fact, limits existed in many areas especially in the creation of JavaScript strings, which Facebook carefully controls.

These types of things have generally been done with the intention of protecting users from dangerous code executing, and to protect their privacy. Facebook has taken steps to limit user invitations for the same reason.

Unfortunately, the playing field is not level for everyone. Facebook and their partners do not suffer the same limitations as other developers are forced to. Partners such as CBS Sports have been exempt from invitation limits imposed on other developers. And Facebook applications can do things other developers cannot.

The key to the discovery of new applications by users, and therefore the success of a particular developer, lies in the user's news feed. Yet it is this area in which Facebook has been most aggressive in restricting what is shown. These steps have caused developer activity to slow. At least one developer thinks that Facebook's valuation will take a hit as a result.

Facebook has often adopted a somewhat arrogant "we know what's best for you" attitude toward developers. While the social network Bebo essentially uses a copy of the Facebook platform, most other social networks use Google's OpenSocial. Faced with this competition for developers, Facebook needs to work with them to ensure that they are happy and their needs are met.

While the goal of protecting users is laudable, Facebook needs to ensure that everyone lives by the same rules, and that developers have a reasonable chance of letting users discover their applications. The value of the network is diminished if users don't have a reason to be there, and applications provide that reason and value. If the developers leave the platform, the network becomes less inviting.

Larry Borsato has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker, and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable, yet often entertaining thoughts you can read his blog at larryborsato.com.

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