API of the Year: Facebook Platform

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.

Be sure to read the next Social article: French Press and Facebook Mashup Hoax