When I was younger, I used to bring over my Super Nintendo games to my friends’ houses and we’d play for hours… that is, if they had an SNES console. If, for some reason, my friend had a Sega system, my games were useless and we had to play something like Sewer Shark. Inevitably less fun was had.
What us kids didn’t know at the time was that we were suffering from a platform war, that manifested, more or less, in the form of a standards war for the domination of the post-Atari video game market. We certainly didn’t get why Nintendo games didn’t work on Sega systems, they just didn’t, and so we coped, mostly by not going over to the kid’s house who had Sega. No doubt, friendships were made — and destroyed — on the basis of which console you had, and on how many games you had for the preferred platform. Indeed, the kids with the richest parents got a pass, since they simply had every known system and could play anyone’s games, making them by default, super popular (in other words, it was good to be able to afford to ignore the standards war altogether).
Fast-forward 10 years and we’re on the cusp of a new standards war, where the players and stakes have changed considerably but the nature of warfare has remained much the same as Hal R. Varian and Carl Shapiro described in Information Rules in 1999. But the casualties, as before, will likely be the consumers, customers and patrons of the technologies in question. So, while we can learn much from history about how to fight the war, I think that, for the sake of the web and for web citizens generally, this coming war can be avoided, and that, perhaps, it should be.
What I’m talking about, of course, is the seemingly inevitable duopoly between Google’s OpenSocial and Facebook’s F8 platforms. Patrick Chanezon, Google’s API evangelist, even went so far to claim that Google is following Chapter 8 and Facebook is following Chapter 9 of Information Rules, suggesting that Google is taking a “Cooperation and Compatibility” approach, while Facebook is seeking to incite a full-fledged standards war:
…having read these two chapters now, I’m not sure things are so cut and dry, and it’s worth taking the time to consider how the rhetoric on both sides maps to the various tactics and strategies outlined in the book (co-authored, mind you, by Google’s Chief Economist).
But look, I’m not going to bore you with all the details. I am, however, going try to put this current situation into some perspective, and suggest a way of moving forward.
Of the browser wars of 1996, Business Week wrote (talking about Bill Clinton):
That the contest caught even the President’s eye underscores just how seminal it is: This battle is for nothing less than the soul of the Internet.
Thus if the spoils of desktop browser wars was the soul of the Internet, then the coming war will be for the soft, pliant heart of the social web; it all comes down to distribution and sticky eyeballs synapsed to clicky-clicky fingers over which advertisers and their kin salivate and jerk off. No kidding.
Back in ’96 (when I was 15), you “provided” distribution by selling certain default real estate in your browser (how do you think Flock keeps managing to raise more money?). This is one reason why the Netscape vs. Internet Explorer war mattered so much — and why the Justice Department intervention decoupling IE from the operating system was so critical. It’s also why Mozilla has been able to amass a warchest (on the order of $50M) by keeping Google in the search “pole position” (and it’s also one compelling reason why Yahoo! might acquire an app like Inquisitor). Regardless, back in Web 1.0, browser distribution models were where it was at. But now that we’ve achieved cross-platform web standards support, generic feature parity (i.e. tabs, popup blocking), have reduced switching costs to nil, and, most importantly, brought about a generation of web surfers that connect to the web through all kinds of systems other than their own, the browser has been summarily reduced to a means to an end — an end which is commonly and increasingly some kind of social network.
Therefore, the endgame here is in setting the priorities that will be represented, through architecture and application design, and running code, in the social platform(s) of the [near] future, and in who can sell the most convincing version of the story that their platform will provide the greatest ROI for the least investment, given current sunk costs, and access to the widest number of [qualified] individuals, networks and relationships.
For OpenSocial application developers, this gives you a whole new audience for your apps, beyond the hundreds of millions of users on existing social networks that support OpenSocial.
Patrick, what new trends stand out to you at this juncture for OpenSocial?
We’re still very early. Now that OpenSocial is reaching 200 million users, we’re starting to see a lot more people ask how they can be involved.
Meanwhile, Facebook promises much the same:
Yet, unlike Google, which has focused on an almost exclusively developer-centric message to buffer their lack of clarity around user privacy, Facebook has revealed its conflicts of intention between serving its advertisers while awkwardly protecting the interests of its users, regularly alternating press releases about advertiser benefits followed by improved privacy protections. Not that Facebook should have it all figured out, but this waffling only reveals what’s at stake here, and what’s driving the priorities of both platforms — Google has merely drowned out their plans to monetize the OpenSocial platform with developer-friendly messages.
Taking pages literally from Information Rules, both parties are employing preemption and expectation management strategies:
The logic of preemption is straightforward: build an early lead, so positive feedback works for you and against your rival. The same principle applies in markets with strong learning-by-doing: the first firm to gain significant experience will have lower costs and can pull even farther ahead. Either way, the trick is to exploit positive feedback. …
One way to preempt is simply to be first to market. Product development and design skills can be critical to gaining a first-mover advantage. But watch out: early introduction can also entail compromises in quality and a greater risk of bugs, either of which can doom your product.
Remind you of the notoriously capricious (but first-to-market) Facebook platform?
Meanwhile, on expectations management:
…Vaporware is a classic tactic aimed at influencing expectations: announce an upcoming product so as to freeze your rival’s sales. …
The most direct way to manage expectations is by assembling allies and making grand claims about your product’s current or future popularity. Sun has been highly visible in gathering allies in support of Java, including taking out full-page advertisements listing the companies in the Java coalition, showing how important expectations management is in markets with strong network externalities…
And so we can see where this is going: companies, groups and individuals wanting to build social applications (and not invest in their own social graph) are essentially beholden to the platform decisions of Google and Facebook. If the two parties can’t figure out how to pick up the phone and talk, we’re going to have two competing platforms, both jockeying for developer attention, and forcing competition for the market, rather than competing within it. With everything that I know and have seen on the web (and while competition is typically good) this kind of fragmentation, generally, seems bad to me, primarily for the customers of these networks, who really don’t (and shouldnt have to) care which standard wins out in the end.
Unfortunately, it comes down to ego. In fact, Information Rules addresses with this kind of situation directly, advising against fragmentation in favor of increasing the size of the overall market:
Before you engage in a standards battle, try to negotiate a truce and form an alliance with your would-be rival. An agreed-upon standard may lead to a far bigger overall market, making for a larger pie that you can split with your partners. Don’t be proud; be prepared to cut a deal even with your most bitter enemy.
Can Google and Facebook come to grips on this? Well, I think they’d better, before Microsoft scoops up Yahoo (which already pledged to support OpenSocial) and makes moves on Facebook. Let’s face it, while it looks like Microsoft is just playing with itself with its Mesh platform, it needs a little soylent juju to get traction and marketshare to advance its ad system (which, by the way, is what powers Facebook ads). If Facebook and Yahoo both support OpenSocial, regardless of what the spec looks like, that’s bad news for lock-in bent Microsoft, and good news for the web.
So call me whacked, but here’s what I think should happen in my next-three-months pipe dream:
- Google should reach out to Facebook. And vice-versa. Preferably simultaneously to reduce any unseemly appearance of capitulation. Facebook should realize that fighting a standards war with Google isn’t really going to benefit them long term. Meanwhile, Google should recognize the value that Facebook’s interaction patterns would bring to OpenSocial, along with the value of reducing developer headaches in having to pick between one or other if resources aren’t available to build for both.
- Facebook should contribute a specification for handling “dynamic privacy” that promotes the interests of its members (and which should work for individual web citizens at large), beyond the flimsy, misleading and unclear privacy model currently being promoted under the aegis of Friend Connect. Presuming it’s good, adopting Facebook’s “dynamic privacy” spec should be Facebook’s top requirement for agreeing to adopt OpenSocial. (And heck, Facebook ends up looking like a good guy for agreeing to play along while not selling out the interests of its members.)
- OpenSocial and the Facebook platform specs and (related IPR) should be assigned to an independent third party foundation, probably other than the OpenSocial Foundation (given its proximity to Google), whose sole obligation would be to steward specifications of the open [social] web.
- Develop interoperable standards, formats and protocols so that 1) applications could be run within Facebook, OpenSocial containers, and on any independent website and that 2) data would be accessible from any of these network providers, using a secure model where the owner of said data determines how their data may be used, who may see it and for how long.
It’s not that we’re far off from this reality, but it will require the concerted effort of a few choice and able individuals within these organizations to make this happen. I believe that, with proper perspective, those agents of change who are already active in building out the future platforms of the social web can grasp the seriousness of the situation and, again, informed by history, will ultimately do the right thing, given the possible alternatives. We’ve made too much progress in the past year to let this opportunity slip out of reach owing to the egos or perceived short term economic benefits to be had by competing for dominance of the social web. It is much better for the health of the overall environment and ecosystem for standards to be set web-wide, and for competition to occur within the marketplace.
Moreover, competing for market domination (where there can only be one) like we saw with Sega and Nintendo will primarily harm the customers of social web services. It is therefore my contention (and wish) that competition be focused on providing higher caliber services and products rather than on the length of the tether used to keep people tied to one network. Condensing and combining the OpenSocial and Facebook platform specifications will take work, vision and compromise, but is ultimately the only way we can avoid what would amount to a costly, unnecessary and unfortunate 10 year standards war where no winner would likely ever emerge.