Report from the front: Tonight’s launch of Open Social

Tonight, a small group of entrepreneurs, technologists, executives, bloggers, press, and professional campfire tenders gathered in Mountain View below the official Google tyrannosaurus rex and formally launched Open Social into the world.

As I write this, Google is about half an hour away from officially putting the Open Social spec and code on the Internet for general consumption. At that same time, the video from the launch event should be going live. Keep hitting this currently nonworking link until you get satisfaction! [Correction — the official site is up at that location! Also, here’s the video of the launch event with all the demos.]


So how’d it go?

Great! In addition to speakers from Google, the launch event included demos from a wide swath of the “coalition of the willing” assembled in support of Open Social — including the newest member and Open Social supporter, MySpace.

All of the demos were — to my knowledge — live running code. And they worked.

The T rex not only did not eat us, but did not fall over on us.

They had smores.

What’s not to like?

So what else happened today?

Well, I may have mentioned that MySpace joined the OpenSocial coalition! Along with Six Apart, Bebo, and most likely a few other new partners whose names I’m forgetting in my post-smore sugar haze.

The total aggregate user base of the Open Social partners is now in excess of 200 million people.

What a world we live in. Developers of Open Social apps will have distribution to 200 million users. I’m sorry, I know I’m supposed to be cynical about this stuff, but that’s astonishing.

What’s the smartest thing anyone has said today about Open Social?

That would have to be Anil Dash:

In 1995, Microsoft believed that its proprietary development tool, codenamed “Blackbird”, would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually evolve into a tool that created reasonably standard HTML, Blackbird’s ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences for MSN was considered a no-brainer to replace regular HTML for anything that needed to seem polished. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption at a time when most browsers were showing ugly text on a plain grey background with almost no advanced layout or design.

In 1999, AOL believed that its proprietary development tool, called RAINMAN (Remote Automated INformation MANager) would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually be replaced by tools that created reasonably standard HTML, Rainman’s ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences that integrated seamlessly into the AOL client was an effective replacement for HTML for tens of millions of users who wanted a polished and social first experience on the Net in the late 90s as they first got online. This wasn’t an unreasonable constraint to impose on the experience at a time when having a rich interactive experience meant downloading complicated browser plugins for video, or configuring temperamental client software just to read email.

AOL was always secretive about Rainman, and remains so to this day, even though Rainman has been largely retired in favor of standard HTML, which has let AOL open up much of its proprietary content to the public web. But Microsoft really wanted to get the word out about Blackbird. There were even conferences for developers, to promote Blackbird for their applications…

It’s not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it’s oversimplification to say that Facebook’s API is the new Blackbird, or the new Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.

As Anil said, comparing Facebook to AOL is not an accurate analogy — for one thing, Facebook was a web site from day one and AOL was not; for another thing, Facebook has opened up a platform, even if it is proprietary, and AOL never opened up any kind of platform.

However, there is a larger point that I’d like to make based on this history. And it is this:

Freedom wins, and openness wins. You can hold it back for some period of time, but in the long run, freedom always wins because freedom and openness let people all over the world be fully creative and innovative in every way they want. And the creativity and innovation that freedom and openness enable will always swamp anyone’s attempt to wall off a proprietary world with tight controls and sharp limitations.

In the mid-1990’s, people told me all the time, “AOL has all the users; why would you think this web thing is ever going to amount to anything?” And it was true — AOLdid have all the users. In the beginning, AOL had tens of millions of users when the Internet had low single digit millions at best. Everyone was scrambling to do deals with AOL to get access to that huge user base, and every media company we met with (there were no Internet companies yet) laughed at the idea of regular people ever using the web.

We saw how that turned out. It turned out that people — regular people, normal people — embraced the web at flank speed precisely because it gave them the ability to create, and to experience, millions of web sites that reflected their interests, desires, and identities. Now, as that happened, AOL also became hugely successful by being one of the easiest on-ramps to the Internet — but once broadband hit and consumers no longer needed a dialup ISP to get on the Internet, AOL went into a tailspin from which it has never recovered, swamped by the power of the decentralized, open, free web.

The world is filled with people who have great ideas — big and small — and the approach that lets the most people express their ideas tends to win.

I am not predicting the death of Facebook. I think the Facebook people are brilliant and are going to do very well over the next several years, have an excellent chance of building a huge and enduring franchise, and have an enormous amount to gain by all of this, including Open Social. But the idea that you hear from time to time that “all the users are on Facebook” and “the game is over; the Facebook platform has won” is silly, as you can see every time you use a web site that doesn’t end in “”.

And remember! One of the great things about Open Social is that it’s not an either/or choice for app developers. It’s quite easy to develop for both Open Social and Facebook, and in practice that’s what I’ll bet most serious app developers will be doing for the next few years, at least.

What’s the dumbest thing anyone has said today about Open Social?


“I think [Open Social is] pie in the sky,” said Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner.

And to think that some people wonder how it is that Gartner still has any clients!

What’s next for Open Social?

All of the partners finalizing and releasing all of the initial OpenSocial container and application implementations, of course. I know frenzied work is happening at all companies involved right now. Everyone can just smell the opportunity, and people are going to drive to ship as quickly as possible.

There may even be some surprises coming on this front…

The other thing that needs to happen, of course, is formalization of the process by which Open Social gets maintained and evolved. The obvious thing is some kind of lightweight working group and standards process, perhaps similar to the IETF working group model. Keep your eyes peeled for progress on that front as well!

What happens after Open Social?

Why, the great social advertising network wars of 2008, of course. More on that soon!