OpenSocial 2.0 Spec Stresses Social Media Interoperability

By embracing OAuth 2.0, Activity Streams, and other specifications, OpenSocial could become the top enterprise social software integration standard.
With ratification of OpenSocial 2.0, the backers of the specification hope to make it more relevant to social application development, both in the enterprise and on the Web.

Among other things, the final version of the OpenSocial 2.0 specification announced Thursday tries to avoid rivalries by adopting elements of other specifications being used for social software development, where possible. In particular, it adopts the Activity Streams specification being shepherded by a separate Web community body in place of its own mechanisms for handling status updates from users and applications. OpenSocial also is taking preliminary steps to incorporate OAuth 2.0, the next generation of the Web 2.0 technology used to let Web users authorize one social website to access another, for example, by providing one application with access to photos or posts controlled by another.

"We're delivering a clean and nice Web 2.0 programming model that is inherently social--nothing else does that," said Mark Weitzel, president of the OpenSocial Foundation and a developer evangelist for Jive. Meanwhile, the Activity Streams integration shows the foundation will "embrace technology where it makes sense" rather than duplicating other efforts, he said in an interview. "This will provide a lot more interoperability with non-OpenSocial systems."

OpenSocial itself is a sort of software component model for serving up bits of user interface from one application and embedding them in another application, or "container." While this sounds little different from other portlet and widget models that have been proposed over the years, OpenSocial also specifies how to make the integration work within a social context, where the embedded social gadget is not merely treated as a "black box" but can exchange information with the container. Examples include querying a user's network of friends or contacts or requesting permission to post to the container user interface. Also, because OpenSocial gadgets are defined using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code, they are not tied to a particular server-side programming language such as Java, Weitzel said.

An open source implementation developed in parallel with the specification, Apache Shindig, helps keep the standards in tune with reality. Shindig 3.0, the version delivering support for OpenSocial 2.0, is not yet available for download, but OpenSocial made a sandbox version available for experimentation on its website.

Another significant element of OpenSocial 2.0 is a new model for embedding applications more deeply into the social experience. For example, rather than just being represented on a sidebar or a separate tab, an application can embed tasks or activities in the container's activity stream. Just as you now see multimedia such as YouTube videos embedded in social feeds, an enterprise application could embed an expense report for distribution to the people authorized to approve it, or a step within a workflow, and users would be able to act on those items right within the feed, Weitzel said.

OpenSocial is already achieving broader adoption in enterprise systems than it gets credit for, Weitzel said. The fact that Facebook does not support the standard also tends to overshadow how widely it has been implemented elsewhere, not just by U.S. sites but internationally by website operators like China's RenRen, he said.

While Weitzel prefers not to phrase the conversation in terms of politics and personalities, the development of OpenSocial follows a familiar technology industry pattern of rival companies promoting different open standards, keeping the standards from being quite as standard as they might be.

"This has always been positioned as a Google versus Facebook thing, and maybe it started out that way, but to me this is about thinking how we can advance as an industry to standards for social computing," Weitzel said. "If you sort of squint and look at the conceptual things, we're not really that far apart."

Since Google introduced the first version of OpenSocial in 2007, it's been positioned as a counterweight to Facebook's Open Graph protocol and the dominance of Facebook's de facto standards for social applications. Because Facebook does not support OpenSocial, the creators of consumer applications have paid less attention to it.

Google has struggled until recently to attract social media market share, and MySpace's backing of OpenSocial became less significant as its prominence waned. Google uses OpenSocial gadgets in its iGoogle personalized portal and will likely incorporate OpenSocial into Google+ whenever it gets around to releasing an API for its newest, most successful social networking site.

Inside the enterprise, OpenSocial forms the basis of the Jive Apps Market and has been adopted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by many of the enterprise players in social software, including IBM, SAP, and Socialtext. On the other hand, there are also enterprise implementations of Open Graph from Yammer and Socialcast.

"OpenSocial kind of faded away for a while and is now starting to come back," Gartner Research VP Ray Valdes said in an interview. "It's now slowly starting to make some headway, but still primarily as a counterweight to Facebook." Meanwhile, the Open Graph technology is in some ways broader than OpenSocial in that it allows sites all around the Web to embed elements of the Facebook experience, and there is potential for enterprise social software to work similar magic, he said.

Facebook's influence may carry less weight on the choice of standards within the enterprise than it does on the consumer Web, but its de facto standards are still "the social operating system of the Web," Valdes said. Google isn't really an enterprise company, either, Valdes said, "but Google at least goes through some of the motions and does have some people with enterprise software backgrounds. Facebook doesn't--and doesn't care--because they're succeeding wildly beyond that."

Weitzel noted that OpenSocial has support from more than just Google, however. He became president of the standards group while working at IBM, which also incorporates support into its social software. As part of a recent OpenSocial "state of the union" event, the online survey service SurveyGizmo demonstrated running the same OpenSocial version of its application in multiple containers, including Jive, iGoogle, and SAP.

"These are real business applications enterprises uses," he said.

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