As Facebook Redefines the Social Web, Platform Manager Dave Morin Talks About the Coolest Facebook Apps From Boston and Seattle
It’s September in Boston, and that can only mean one thing—conferences, conferences, conferences. Xconomy’s own life sciences event was on Tuesday, and I spent most of the day yesterday at EmTech 08, the big annual tech-fest put on by MIT’s Technology Review magazine.
One highlight was a lively panel led by Robert Scoble, renowned technology blogger and managing director of FastCompany.tv, about what comes after Web 2.0, as new standards for sharing and interoperability dissolve the traditional notion of the standalone website. These days Internet users are consuming, contributing, swapping, and remixing personalized information in ever-smaller snippets. Open interfaces, for example, mean that the updates you broadcast to your followers on Twitter can be immediately republished on your blog or your FriendFeed page, where your friends can also track everything from what photos you’re uploading to Flickr to what movies you’re renting from Netflix.
Facebook, which was formed here in Cambridge by Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard undergrad, is one of the companies doing the most to drive this transition—and Dave Morin, Facebook’s senior platform manager, was one of Scoble’s four panelists. (The others were David Recordon of blogging platform provider Six Apart, Joseph Smarr of Comcast’s Plaxo division, and Nova Spivack, the CEO of Radar Networks and the creator of Twine.) “The first iteration of the Web was all about information—you were excited just to put a Web page up, and it was hard to understand who the people were who were interacting with all those pages,” Morin said during the discussion. “But now the Web is becoming more social. Through open APIs [application programming interfaces] we are exposing not just information but the actions and thoughts of the people using the Web. That’s what we’re driving toward—adding that ‘people’ layer to the Web.”
I had a chance to talk with Morin one-on-one before he went on stage. I asked him to talk about the recent changes Facebook has implemented to make the site even more social—for example, by giving site users easier access to third-party applications and letting them communicate with their Facebook friends even when they’re not logged into Facebook itself. I also asked him to name a few of the third-party applications that he likes best—with a special focus, of course, on those developed by programmers in Xconomy’s home cities.
Xconomy: Talk about some of the new features of the Facebook Platform. What are you doing to make it easier for outside developers to set up shop on Facebook?
Dave Morin: In our recent redesign we included the ability for developers to share information in a more structured way. There is a new feature that we call Publisher up on the top of the wall on everyone’s page. Publisher enables you to add structured data into your feed, and that helps people to understand what’s going on in the world around them. [Specifically: from the Publisher area, users can quickly post status updates, photos, or videos to their profiles, or create tabs that take them directly to third-party applications.---WR]
In addition, one of the innovations we’ve launched recently is called Facebook Connect. It makes this vision of making the Web more social a reality. It enables any site or device outside of Facebook to leverage pieces of Facebook to make these sites more social—including being able to take your Facebook identity with you. Inside Facebook, you’ve built up a lot of data about yourself, and with Facebook Connect you will be able to take that identity with you wherever you go, and bring your friends with you too.
The third thing is that as you move about the Web and as the Web becomes more social, being able to tell your friends what you’re doing is something really powerful. So with Facebook Connect people [back on Facebook] will see the actions you’ve chosen to share from other sites on the Web. It works on the same concept as Facebook applications inside Facebook, except that parties outside Facebook can leverage both the APIs that we already make available and a few new ones.
For example, TheInsider.com is a site that CBS has put together that taps into Facebook Connect. [At this point Morin opened his MacBook Air and brought up the site.---WR] Since I’m already logged into Facebook, you can see that my Facebook profile pic is there, and my real name, and lot of people with accounts here are my friends already. If you scroll down to the bottom and add a comment, then that can be published as a story to your Facebook profile. You can imagine this happening anywhere—on any site where you contribute content or add comments, any blog or news site. If those sites are enabled with Facebook Connect then your friends will know about the interesting things you’re doing on those sites.
X: One observation that’s frequently made about Facebook is that you guys seem to be trying to re-create a lot of the functions that are out there on the Internet, but within the walls of the Facebook.com—so people can have an Internet “experience” without really going out to the rest of the Internet. But Facebook Connect actually seems to be driving in the other direction—taking bits and pieces of Facebook and projecting them out onto the rest of the Web.
DM: With Facebook Connect we want to enable Facebook users to go anywhere on the Web and take the pieces of Facebook with them that really enhance what they’re doing on those other sites. We know there are a lot of great sites and great businesses doing great things out there, and we know that Facebook users want to bring their friends with them when they use them. If you’re out on the Web and your friends don’t know that you’re taking certain actions, it’s hard to have a conversation around what you’re doing. With Facebook Connect, we are trying to enable that for any site on the Web.
X: Facebook launched a native iPhone app in July that includes chats, photos, and status updates. What else are you guys doing to help users tap into their Facebook network from their mobile devices?
DM: We spend a lot of time thinking about mobile. We have a great mobile version of the website, and we also have the Facebook for the iPhone application, which we’re really excited about. But we also spend time thinking about how our APIs interact with the mobile device and how we can make it easier for mobile developers to access the social graph and do interesting things with the Facebook Platform. One of the innovative ways we are doing that is this fall we’re releasing Facebook Connect for the iPhone. It’s the same basic concept as Facebook Connect, but it will work on the iPhone. So we’re creating a software development kit for iPhone app developers that leverages our APIs.
X: How would a mobile application tap into Facebook Connect? Can you give me an example?
DM: One of the more popular things to do with Facebook is to play asynchronous games like Scrabble, where I take a turn, then you take a turn. Let’s say there was a game like that on the iPhone. Normally you would just play against yourself or against a leaderboard. But with Facebook Connect you will be able to open the app, log into your Facebook account, connect to the Facebook Platform, and choose any of your friends to play with. It leverages the same APIs as in Facebook Connect, with a few extra pieces for the Cocoa programming language that Apple uses for the iPhone.
X: Are you working on similar systems that might run on phones with other operating systems, like Java, Symbian, or Android?
DM: It’s something we’re evaluating as time goes on. Our platform today is actually fairly easy to leverage on any mobile device. It’s just easier on some and not as easy on others. As time goes on we’ll continue to develop that.
X: As you know, Xconomy focuses on the technology scene in Boston and Seattle, and soon in San Diego. What are some of your favorite applications from developers in those cities?
DM: Cities I’ve Visited is one, from TripAdvisor, a Boston company. We really like their application—it shows you a map of everyplace you’ve been, and how you’re doing in travel quizzes and the like. Stylefeeder is great, and Kayak. Another good Boston one is Utterz.
In Seattle, there is this great little company called Picnik. They have one of the best online photo editors. We really love these guys; they are doing neat stuff. They basically have created this incredibly robust, beautiful photo editor that enables you to do all kinds of neat things with your photos, like editing and adding effects and captions, and their interface is incredibly beautiful. They’ve integrated that directly with the photo albums on Facebook. We are actually one of the largest photo sharing sites, if not the largest—we host over 6 billion photos. But we are not specialists in doing photo editing or customization, and these guys are able to provide these kinds of functionality to our user base of 100 million users.
Another great Seattle company is called All Widgets. They do amazing work creating applications for large brand platforms. They’ve grown from one person to about 12 people recently. For example, the Visa Business Network on Facebook was created by those guys.
In San Diego, FaceReviews does a variety of different things within the Facebook ecosystem. They create some of their own applications. They write a blog about some of the better Facebook apps. They also do some consulting with large brands about how to get into Facebook. Rodney Rumford, the founder of FaceReviews, is one of the big leaders in the San Diego Facebook ecosystem.
X: A lot of the developers I’ve spoken with who were building Facebook apps have expressed frustration with the Facebook platform being somewhat unpredictable and unreliable, and with a lack of advance communication from the company when you make revisions to the platform and changes to the APIs. What have you been doing to deal with those concerns?
DM: We work really hard to increase the amount of communication we’re doing. We’re committed to building a trustworthy, meaningful ecosystem that all businesses big and small can participate in. We’ve put a lot of great things in place, from simple things like bug trackers to communication systems like our blog. We’re trying really hard to be as transparent as possible and to communicate as much as possible, so that people understand what changes are being made and what things we’re doing to make the platform more stable. We truly want people to build great businesses on the platform, but it’s been a learning process. We’ve been very humbled. It’s grown so much faster than we ever imagined, so it’s one of those things. We’ve been trying really hard to get developers the information they need.
X: As Facebook grows, can you imagine opening new development centers in places like Boston or Seattle?
DM: Right now Facebook is almost entirely in Palo Alto. We have a couple of sales offices, in New York and London. We are still a pretty small company, though we have world-wide ambitions. But as time goes on we’ll definitely think about that. Facebook is rooted here [in Cambridge], after all.