Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Facebook or Internet - What is the real social networking platform?

It is my perhaps not so humble opinion that the internet will continue to evolve as the platform for social networking. The early successes and leading sites like Facebook that have gained traction have an opportunity to be part of the broader ecosystem but I disagree with the opinion of some of my peers that one particular company will dominate social networking. The desire to be the platform and the glory that comes with it seems to encourage every successful entrepreneur to declare his technology, website or tool to be the platform.

Lately, there is been a lot of discussion about Facebook and its platform ambitions in particular. Fellow Irregular, Dennis Howlett has a post on ZDNet today nicely summarizing some of the discussion.

What is a platform and how do I build one quickly?

I define a platform as a set of tools, technology or more broadly any layer that allows new products or services to be built with an order of magnitude less resources than was possible before the platform.

Excellent examples of platforms include railway network, power grid, internet, telephony network, etc. In the technology realm, platforms that have made an impact include mainframes, databases, operating systems, email, etc. For example - before the railway network, if you wanted to build a power plant or a factory, you had to lay down the tracks, buy rail engines and bogies, etc. and all the costs had to be borne by one single entity.

It takes a lot of time and effort to build a platform. Most importantly, all platforms start out as applications solving a particular business or technical problem - in other words, platforms evolve from applications. Computers started out as specialized calculators to perform census or scientific calculations and over several decades generalized to what we call computers. Similarly, road networks evolved over 100+ years as people built roads from point A to point B - till the 'network effects' kicked in and Eisenhower launched the famous Interstate project.

Do you remember the previous platforms? AOL??

Many online businesses have thought they can short circuit this process and become the platform. Remember, when AOL was the dominant internet (with its own domain name system or AOL Keywords) or Amazon was the platform for online shopping. A single business entity has advantages of speed and single minded-ness that it can leverage to provide a compelling solution rather than wait for the ecosystem to evolve but eventually the broader system catches up and overtakes the giants.

So what are the underlying issues Facebook is addressing. As quoted on the ZDNet blog, I think the following are the principles underlying a next generation social platform :
  • People want online identities to establish trust-based professional and personal relationships. FaceBook provides this but I believe in the long run a third party validation system could provide you with a ‘universal’ identity (with multiple faces/avatars/usernames) to conduct business over the wider internet.
  • People want control over who connects to them and when. FaceBook, email and GoogleGroups provide this in different ways.
  • People want a publishing platform. Unlike email, this is information or opinion you want to share but don’t want to push in an email. Blogs, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, etc all do this. Email and IM are not good at this.
  • Plus all the basic goodies like document sharing, managing relationships (invites, forwarding), messaging, etc.
These are just some of the issues and there are several groups and companies dedicated to solving some of these challenges like Identity & Trust, Content Management & User Control, Publishing, Messaging, etc.

I believe Facebook shows us in a small way what would be possible if we solved some of these challenges. But if you think Facebook is the final answer, then you may end up feeling like people that bet on MySpace as the social networking platform or AOL as the internet. Not very smart.

What do you think about Facebook? Is Google the real platform? What about Cisco & WebEx? Or Microsoft?


Dennis Howlett said...

It makes a lot of sense to keep an open mind about the platform winner aspect of this wider discussion.

I see Facebook as more a proof of concept for the underlying trends and patterns you describe and to that extent I am fascinated by the extent to which it is gaining acceptance among older people.

One thing's for sure, it's growing at one heck of a clip - always a good sign.

Unknown said...

I agree with you that Facebook is a proof of concept for what is possible. And it could even be a dominant player in the social networking arena for a long time to come. I am just not sure that it is 'the platform' just yet. Would take a few years and billion dollars in revenue for me to buy that.

Ashwin Patel said...

Today's 'platforms' on the internet are yesterday's 'operating systems' of the computers. In my opinion, going forward there will NOT be a one big monolithic platform offered by the likes of facebook or MySpace. Instead, there will be a several platforms and eventually there will be inter-platform integration technologies that will spring up. Having just one platform offered by one vendor is like saying there will be only one OS offered by Microsoft and thats it.

Similar to different OSes, there will be different platforms. And just like applications are ported from one OS to another, similar porting (of applications, personal profiles) will also happen across platforms.

Now the question to ask is whether such cross-platform integration be provided as a feature of the platform itself. Will we learn from our pains of porting applications across operating systems and make porting across platforms that much easier.

It is catch-22 that all the existing platform providers have to face. Should they:
1. Become more inter-platform friendly and support the 'internet platform ecosystem'.
2. Or make it difficult to port/cross-integrate with other platforms.

#1 will allow the user maintain a single identity across platforms and be able to choose best of breed features across platforms.

#2 will forcibly lock in users in the respective platform.

Time will tell if today's platform providers take a high road and make inter-platform integration a first class citizen feature in their offering.