Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Facebook Empire (part II)

(click here for part I)

Yesterday, I blogged about a lesson that Facebook is soon going to learn. That lesson is this, and comes in two parts: when you integrate your services, you're actually competing with the Internet. And, when you compete with the Internet, you lose.

The Second Thing

So what does it mean to compete with the Internet, and how can you avoid it?

The Internet is really just a consensus built around a set of protocols; it only holds together as well as it does because everybody agrees to either work within the framework of all the protocols that exist, or to build new protocols and try to build consensus around those. When you build a new service that follows existing protocols, you're working with the Internet, and strengthening the whole network, because it makes it easier for people to benefit from your innovations. So, people innovate within the framework of the Internet because the users are there, and users are there because innovation happens there - it's a virtuous cycle, in other words.

(If you've ever heard people talk about "open standards" in reverent, near-religious terms, it's because they've realized just how powerful this virtuous cycle is.)

That's why competing against the Internet is a losing proposition. Its creators built a system where anybody can improve the whole by adding their bit, and by now it's built such a tremendous momentum that you have to be as large as Facebook to make any headway against the flow.

Facebook has sort of a mixed history when it comes to open protocols. The website (their main service) is pretty locked-down; things like RSS feeds exist, but they sure don't want you to find them! On the other hand, Facebook chat is built on XMPP, and as a result it was trivial for most instant messaging clients to add support for it - an example of the power of using open protocols.

It's possible that they'll somehow manage to map their new messaging service onto an existing protocol (IMAP, if we're lucky), but I have my doubts. If they were doing that, it seems like the sort of major feature that they'd want to mention! Far more likely that they'll expect you to use it through their web interface, and maybe have some limited integration with other services.

On the other hand, some companies actually get it. I may have misclassified Google the other day, for instance - they expose a lot of their services through their GData APIs, and tend toward using open standards without restrictions when possible. (For instance, they were one of the first free webmail services to give people access to IMAP and POP for free.)

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