I’ve been using Facebook since it went live at my school back when I was still a student, which if the date stamp on the first post on my Wall is accurate, was late 2004. In that time I’ve seen the site — and my usage of it — undergo many changes. From changing its name from thefacebook.com to Facebook, to opening up to the public, and launching the game changing Facebook platform, the world’s largest social network has undergone a transformation over the past 4 years. But even though Facebook continues to grow like a weed, there is some evidence that users of the site could be becoming fatigued.
Facebook is at a fairly critical point in its development. It still trails MySpace in the lucrative US market, it is facing increased pressure from Google’s OpenSocial platform, and it is struggling to justify its $15 billion valuation. So what should Facebook do next? Here are two radical ideas that could keep it on top.
Open Up Its Platform
No, I mean, really open up its platform. Opening Facebook to developers via the F8 platform a little over a year ago was by most accounts a brilliant move. Some people have compared Facebook’s platform growth to the early years Microsoft Windows. And while Top Friends and Scrabulous are hardly the killer apps that Microsoft Office and Outlook have been for Windows, that’s clearly the story Facebook is attempting to enact. Their plan goes something like this: create a platform, attract developers to it, get users hooked on the killer apps, lock them in and keep them there, make money after you’ve become indispensable.
Data portability concerns aside (I’m not convinced anyone outside of the early adopter set really cares anyway), that’s a pretty good plan. If they succeed, Facebook becomes a must-visit destination for users because of the organically grown app ecosystem.
There is a way to drastically speed up the process, though: open up even further. I’m not talking about just the the application platform, but all the social network’s plumbing as well. Facebook recently Ning-style hosted niche social network platform — let anyone create their own niche Facebook. Call it Ning with a built in social graph. Ning has grown like crazy because its customers do all of its promoting. Facebook could do the same thing and spread itself across the web inside thousands of niche Facebooks.
And with enterprise spending on web 2.0 tech — including social networks — expected to hit $4.3 billion by 2013, they could white label their offering and make a little cash along the way.
Become a Virtual Computer
This isn’t really that radical, actually. It’s no secret that Facebook is aiming to become the web OS of the future (or perhaps even the web of the future, in which everything flows through Facebook). In order to become the operating system for the web, though, Facebook will need to do two things: they need some app developers to create a killer app or two for their platform (something that that no one can live without), and they need to start being your brain.
The former is clear, the latter needs some explanation. One of the great things about a personal computer, is that it’s a data dump. Photos, videos, notes, tax returns — a lot of what we do ends up stored on our hard drives so we don’t have to remember it. Facebook already acts like a data dump for some parts of our lives — photos, personal communications, our address book and calendar — the site acts like a brain that keeps track of this stuff for us. But it can do a much better job.
The reason Facebook wants to become the web’s operating system is that it wants us to become reliant on Facebook, the way we’re reliant on our personal computing devices (PC, laptop, smart phone, etc.). That’s not the case right now. To do so, Facebook needs to suck up more of our data. How does it do that? Microsoft has the answer: Live Mesh.
Live Mesh is a data synchronization platform that can instantly sync data across multiple devices and the web. Unlike competing data sync services, Microsoft has engineered Mesh as a platform that anyone can leverage. When they showed it to me in April, one of the demo apps they had running was for Facebook — it automatically synced photos taken on a cell phone with a Facebook gallery. If Facebook can start automatically remembering everything we do, and if users can get by the Orwellian implications of that, it could truly become an integral part of our lives.
The ability to keep track of all your data across all your devices is an important piece of the puzzle for any company trying to create the web operating system that we’ll all end up using. Because Facebook already has a strong relationship with Microsoft, integrating the Mesh platform into the Facebook operating system seems like a no-brainer.