API of the Year: Facebook Platform

John Musser, December 27th, 2007

The statistics are impressive – nearly 12,000 applications produced on the Facebook Platform since its launch on May 24th of this year and according to Adonomics those applications were used over 36 million times in the last 24 hours.

It’s success prompted Google to push out its OpenSocial platform, expected to be widely deployed in 2008, and in turn Facebook has recently opened its platform for use in other social networks, starting with Bebo.

Why the runaway success?

  • Openness: It’s a validation of the open API model that has been driving innovation on the Web over the last few years. Open the gates to your customers and let them decide what works. In the Facebook Platform any developer with a good idea and access to mainstream programming skills can join the party and try out ideas, and over 100,000 developers have done so.
  • Audience: API-driven access to an audience the size of Facebook’s lead many to jump on board in a hurry. And in many ways the early Facebook developers have been targeting the traditional, younger Facebook audience and gave rise to apps like Flirtable, Vampires, Bumper Sticker, and Send Hotness in the top 100 apps. It’s notable that established brands have not gotten much footing in the application space, and to do so they may want to partner with the trailblazers.
  • Money: Openness and youthful enthusiasm are good, but Facebook coupled that with the promise of potential riches by allowing developers to monetize without interference their portion of the page. Although the revenue models are completely unproven outside of the top applications, the potential has led to a sense that there is a ‘land grab’ for user attention, and the development costs are low enough so that developers are worrying about building the audience first and making money off them later.
  • Viral Features: A variety of avenues for viral distribution ranging from the news feed to notifications have led to headline-worthy growth for some applications. Even though a few of these options may have been dialed-back by Facebook there’s still opportunity to use this platform for rapid, network-effects growth.
  • Plug-in model and Constraints: Facebook facilitated the rapid adoption of the outside developer applications by building a plug-in style platform and having developers conform to a specific user experience, in the profile, the news feed, the application’s canvas page, and the installation and privacy procedures. This gives users the confidence to install and sample many apps, knowing that the learning curve of understanding and evaluating an app is in minutes. The level of viralness seen in the applications would never have happened without these constraints.
  • Metrics: The traditional cycle of product development – analyze, develop, test, and rework before release – has been turned on its head in the Facebook environment, where many of the strongest applications were designed and released in a matter of days. This was done with the knowledge that by paying careful attention to the usage metrics supplied by Facebook, the applications can be rapidly tweaked and reconfigured, with the audience subliminally influencing the product’s direction.

Of course there are drawbacks and minefields ahead – the predictable backlash against ‘too many apps’, privacy concerns, rapidly evolving technology platform, the preponderance of low-commitment apps, and the difficulty developers have making money in the long tail. Given the growing competitive challenges its success in 2008 is not guaranteed. But as a provocative game-changer, the Facebook Platform wins the API of the Year award for 2007.

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7 Responses to “API of the Year: Facebook Platform”

December 27th, 2007
at 10:52 am
Comment by: Douglas Karr

But was it at the cost of their users? I agree that opening a platform was incredible, but the deluge of crap that met each user who logged in after applications began to spread is actually beginning to turn users off.

I believe there needs to be more control over previewing, ranking, and sharing apps.

December 27th, 2007
at 2:45 pm
Comment by: Victor

As a developer, I have to disagree with your choice on this one. Facebook API is NOT open by any means. It’s just a hoax to draw developers to drive their traffic back to Facebook. On the other hand, Flickr and others allows developers to do anything and be creative. Flickr has a true API.

Why do you think almost all Facebook apps are stupid? You really think every Facebook developer is that dumb? It’s really because Facebook’s API has so many constraints that developers can’t do much. Facebook API should be more appropriately called “widget API”.

December 27th, 2007
at 6:20 pm
Comment by: John Musser

@Douglas, agreed that there’s been both positive and negative impact on users, but I’d say on the whole there’s more good than bad. And I suspect the FB team is working on more controls for managing apps, which now with tens of thousands, this becomes more critical.

December 27th, 2007
at 6:43 pm
Comment by: John Musser

@Victor: It is true that because the Facebook Platform’s a plug-in type API that the traffic mostly winds-up back at Facebook, although Facebook also has the older “Facebook API” which is an access API like Flickr’s. The constraints helped jumpstart apps so they did not have to worry about every UI detail and instead focus on the things that matter most like building social features. It will be interesting to see how the API evolves next year…

December 29th, 2007
at 10:31 am
Comment by: Straw Dogs » Facebook API Wins API of the Year

[...] directory of all the major APIs on the web open for development.  They’ve decided to award the Best API of the Year to the Facebook site.  It won based on its openness, audience, money-making potential, viral features, [...]

January 22nd, 2008
at 9:05 am
Comment by: Josh

This is ridiculous. API of the year? Have you actually used it to develop an application? The Facebook API is one of the most broken, incomplete, and under documented APIs to be used this widespread in a long, long time.

March 10th, 2009
at 1:08 pm
Comment by: Robert Boyer

There is an old saying, “Would you rather be ‘right’ or get what you want?” Until you truly get into open implementation (very diff from open API), very few APIs are really open. BUT, do/should you really care. There is now something more available than yesterday. It will surely evolve for the better, across all dimensions. And, for me as a developer, the kicker is that it creates an avenue to a target audience…. which of by the way is the only reason for developing applications in the first place (except for the one app “Contemplate your belly-button”).

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