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Facebook Opens Its Platform

The company is giving developers greater access to Facebook's user networks and better tools to monetize the Facebook audience.

Earlier this month, at the Software 2007 Conference, Slide CEO and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin predicted that "MySpace is what's going to take on Microsoft." He might as well have fingered Facebook.

Facebook plans to grant third-party developers greater access to its social network, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, with an announcement expected to come Thursday at the company's developer conference. In so doing, Facebook continues its transition from social network to social platform.

"We do not comment on speculation and rumors about our future product plans," said a Facebook spokesperson.

Launched in February 2004, Facebook now boasts 23 million active users and claims to be the sixth most visited site on the Internet. While it is perhaps a quarter the size of MySpace in terms of users, its growth rate, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, was three times that of MySpace last year.

As a development and growth tool, the Facebook Platform debuted in beta in August and was officially released in February. That same month, the company also released its own database query language, called Facebook Query Language, to help developers access Facebook data.

Developers are currently able to create Web widgets or desktop applications that integrate with Facebook and make use of relationship and profile information, events, photos, and other data. As a consequence of Thursday's expected announcement, developers will gain greater access to Facebook's user networks and better tools to monetize the Facebook audience.

"Facebook is taking a very aggressive, open approach, which is what we have been saying all along is the key for a social network to remain relevant to its audience over a long period of time," said Alex Blum, CEO of KickApps, a company that makes online applications that can be added to any Web site.

By way of contrast, MySpace recently showed itself to be less accommodating to outside companies looking to profit from its user base when it blocked Photobucket slideshows from its pages.

Facebook reportedly spurned a purchase offer for close to $1 billion from Yahoo last year and has been closely watched following News Corp.'s 2005 acquisition of Intermix Media, owner of MySpace, for $580 million.

One reason for the interest in social networking sites is that users spend a lot of time within the network and view many pages there. Facebook, for instance, had the most pages viewed per U.K. visitor (466) of any Web site, according to figures released by Nielsen//NetRatings last month, and came in fourth in terms of average hours spent per visitor (2 hours, 28 minutes).

The other reason is that social networking sites have a lot of user data, as Levchin pointed out. That data is much coveted by advertisers. And with few ways for users to export their personal profiles and network of friends, social sites become the beneficiaries of user lock-in.

That may be changing, however. Blum sees generic social networking sites being challenged by niche-oriented ones, perhaps because that future bodes well for his company's business. "I think you've got to vote with the consumer because the consumer can move on very easily," said Blum, discounting the power of the large social sites. "The cost to change is becoming less and less every day."

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