OpenSocial: Impediment or Catalyst?

opensocial OpenSocial. There is a great deal of excitement and hype behind the (gradual) release of Google’s OpenSocial. I have spent the last few weeks, since the release of OpenSocial, experimenting with, as well as speaking to the individuals involved with both product sides, widget and Container, and really digging into what is known, what is hypothesized to be, and wrapping myself around OpenSocial’s current and full potential.

What is OpenSocial?

OpenSocial allows websites and social networks (OpenSocial term, ‘Containers‘) to run mini-products (OpenSocial term, applications; aka gadgets, widgets). The mini-products can be shared across multiple social networks and leverage the existing content and data on the social networks (i.e. your existing friends). The Containers can host these mini-products as well as exchange information with other Containers, other social networks.

What does Google say about the Container a.k.a. OpenSocial Service Provider Interface (SPI)?

“To host OpenSocial apps, your website must support the SPI side of the OpenSocial APIs. Usually your SPI will connect to your own social network, so that an OpenSocial app added to your website automatically uses your site’s data. However, it is possible to use data from another social network as well, should you prefer. Soon, we will provide a development kit with documentation and code to better support OpenSocial websites, along with a sample sandbox which implements the OpenSocial SPI using in-memory storage. The SPI implements:

  • Adding and removing friends
  • Adding and removing apps
  • Storing activities
  • Retrieving activity streams for self and friends
  • Storing and retrieving per-app and per-app-per-user data “

Pasted from <http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial/container.html>

The most exciting information can be found in the highlighted statement within the above excerpted quote from Google’s explanation of the OpenSocial SPI. It is the possibility of sharing, exchanging, porting information between DIFFERENT social networks, not tied down to any one social network, where the networks have to provide value-add and truly unique user experiences to keep a user. In an environment where a user can easily move all of their gadgets (apps, widgets, modules) from one network to another, as well as, and most excitingly, port their user created content and friends from one network to another, at will, is tremendous (or should I say, ‘will be’?) for the progression of the Internet environment and user experiences, and the evolution of the Internet towards one of all around Modular Innovation.

———–

A while ago I coined the term Modular Innovation to describe the next phase of the Internet’s evolution; one which includes, but is not limited to the layer of the Internet referred to, by many, as the ‘social Internet’ – highly relevant to this discussion of OpenSocial. The stage of the Internet’s development after ‘Web 2.0′ is the period that I refer to as Modular Innovation.

Modular Innovation. Where users are able to determine the user-facing modules with which they can interact. Where users can determine which location or locations the information that these modules use are stored. Where users are able to customize their total Internet interaction and user experience, without third-party restrictions placed on how they can access, share, or move the content that they, themselves, have created. All this is Modular Innovation — innovation of many parts, or modules, that result in a much larger, cohesive whole for the user.

The components and products that enable this time of Modular Innovation knock down the encumbering walls. They allow for complete control of one’s own content, through the ability to integrate with other Innovative Modules (services & products), incorporating flexibility, portability, and facilitating the total customization, and self-determination of and by users with respect to how they interact with their personal creations and those of other individuals and companies.

OpenSocial is Open & Social. Really?

Just a little bit. I mean, well, that is how much of OpenSocial has actually been released, despite all of the articles and press releases that everyone has been reading. To be fair, right now it is difficult to give OpenSocial a complete and thorough review with 100% clarity, since it is still not completely “out there.” Over the past few weeks I have spoken to people and organizations throughout the OpenSocial product chain from the developers to the companies themselves, and experimented with and studied everything from the widgets to the Containers.

The initial release of OpenSocial was on the widget-side of things. At the time of OpenSocial’s release, if I hadn’t been prudent in my assessment and given Google more time to see if they would be able to paint a clearer picture, I would have maintained, as also has been said by others, that OpenSocial would have been better labeled as the “OpenWidget” platform. The App (Data) and Container API documentation all remain very incomplete, often merely consisting of little more than a few bullet points to guide peoples’ expectations. However, I have of late had the opportunity to study parts of the OpenSocial Container API, albeit a very incomplete and far from concrete API, to build a firmer understanding of the total vision of OpenSocial that I can now more accurately, more confidently, share with you.

Where does Google’s OpenSocial fit in? Does it help or hurt the progress and emerging next phase of the Internet, Modular Innovation?

orkut Now! For the moment the biggest value in OpenSocial lies with its ability to drive new development and user adoption for Google’s social network — orkut. If you want to develop and test apps or widgets you are pointed right to orkut. The Container half of the OpenSocial system, the part where the widgets are actually used and users/friends are created and edited, is clearly the lagging half of the OpenSocial release, with much more support and documentation already out for the widget-side. Trying not to pose too cynical a question… what’s the hurry? The more time that it takes to get the Container support out the door, the more people are (strongly?) encouraged to make use of orkut for development and testing, the more people are curious about new OpenSocial apps they come across, where orkut is the primary place to check them out and experiment with them, the better it is for Google … for orkut.

Other places (Engage.com, Friendster, hi5, Hyves, imeem, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Oracle, orkut, Plaxo, Salesforce.com, Six Apart, Tianji, Viadeo, XING) will be implementing Containers and hosting these widgets, but not yet comprehensively. Full Container support and implementation will be a while in coming. The documentation isn’t there. And there are still plenty of questions on the app hosting and Container sides of the equations. So, for now, the bulk of developers’ focus is on widgets and apps — great news for orkut.

As a matter of fact, if anyone sees this move by Google as a purely altruistic offer to help the developer and the social Internet consumer, don’t lose sight of the fact that orkut’s U.S. market share, as of February of this year is a paltry 0.26%.

I would be remiss to not point out, that while orkut has been very successful internationally, they have yet been able to repeat that success in any meaningful way in the U.S., where the real advertising dollars can be found.

Will orkut, as a result of OpenSocial see a boom in its U.S. market share? You can count on it. This is indeed a very, very smart strategy by Google. I point this out not to slam OpenSocial, its ideas, or its strategy, which I find to be truly impressive, or the fact, that the slower they move on the Container-side, the greater the potential market share grab for orkut, which has been awesomely and intelligently executed, getting orkut competitors to buy-in (very impressive, Google), but to frame the logical, following question…

How much of OpenSocial and Google’s OpenSocial grand vision will come into being? Will it occur quickly? Or drag, and drag, and drag out over many years to come?

I ask these questions which, for now, can only be posed and re-evaluated as OpenSocial becomes more open, because my gamble, my interest, as well as the interest of everyone of the Internet lies in the visible progress of the technology and paradigms of the Internet. If something occurs to impede their progress, then it is best that everyone be on their toes and fully aware to address these issues and needs head-on, and with creative vigor and enthusiasm. It remains too early to draw any final conclusions.

Beyond orkut.

The OpenSocial environment is made up of (1) Applications (or widgets or gadgets) and (2) Containers. The Applications are independent modules that are able to display and perform actions based on the data fed into them — for example, list friends, latest friend activity, share restaurants you liked visiting with your friends, etc. Each module typically performs a specific, finite task, like mini-products, based upon a normalized set of input data. Each module can also communicate back to the parent, Container, what activities or other changes have occurred – e.g. new restaurant visited. Containers host, or run, the modules. orkut is a Container that early developers, and interested consumers, are able to use for testing their new modules to see how they work and how they interact with the data on orkut via the Container interface (aka API).

Creating the OpenSocial applications and modules that can run on every social network (that supports them) is nice – but hardly the exciting part. The part that is far from production ready, albeit starting to become available on places like hi5, Ning, and Plaxo, is the Container piece.

If OpenSocial lives up to the press releases and talking points, then OpenSocial just might be a positive catalyst in the world of Modular Innovation. If the walls of portability, access, sharing, self-determination of one’s own content remain, or if new walls spring up, or new cumbersome hindrances or restrictions emerge, then, what might be a positive influence may become the impeding technology, slowing progress of the clear eventuality where Modular Innovation rules the day.

For now, we shall all wait, continue to play with the pieces that constitute OpenSocial, the pieces that have been released, that eventually, will constitute the full release of OpenSocial — an event that we are all still anticipating.

Until then, myself and others will keep experimenting, observing and discussing Google’s OpenSocial to see just where it ends up; and waiting and watching for more Modular Innovations and noting those companies that facilitate the next phase of the Internet, and those that attempt to impede the inevitability.

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

P.S. and a Note to Google: In the future, try to not let the rhetoric get months ahead of the actual full release… starting out with unfulfilled expectations, sets the wrong tone for a product, a platform, that could have a huge impact on the future development of the product and the Internet, for good or worse (‘evil’ perhaps). This is valuable advice that does not apply solely to Google, but can be an educational learning point for all startups and companies releasing their products on the Internet. For Google and OpenSocial, we will have to wait and see.

The Virtual Office & You. Belong together?

netconnect The 100% Virtual Office has been part of the promise of the Internet. Why is it then, that we do not see more of them being adopted by either/both established companies and start-ups? Simply put, the 100% Virtual Office is not for everyone.

What is a Virtual Office?

Remote developers and other remote employees. Outsourcing tasks to another company. Virtual Office can be used to describe these scenarios and various other forms and functions of a geographically diverse office environment. Of particular interest for this discussion, is the Internet idealized model, where the Virtual Office serves as the “core” (most important, strategic, etc.) operations and brains of the company. This ideal also describes a scenario where …

  • No significant number of employees work under the same roof,
  • The participants within the virtual office are full-time employees of the real company, and
  • In-person meetings are a rarity.

Not every company would or could be able to benefit from the Virtual Office, whether it is simply through the non-alignment of the company’s process and time sensitive goals with the capabilities of the Virtual Office, or the mismatched skill set of the manager charged with creating and running the Virtual Office.

A Virtual Office can be most successful in settings that meet the following characteristics…

  • Tight budget. The company simply cannot afford the number of people needed to accomplish the goals of the company within the geographically local market. Very typical scenario for start-ups.
  • Time flexible. Timelines are flexible and some time flexibility can be sacrificed if it can lead to large near-term budget savings.
  • Super-organized management. The type of process and planning-organization management is not typically something learned on the job, but brought to the table by the individual(s) creating and running the Virtual Office. If they don’t have this ability in their core, then this is a challenge they should consider passing on or seeking an individual with that built-in set of skills to serve in that capacity.
  • Creative and dynamic management. The processes and the overall Virtual Office machine need to be optimally organized and structured by the leader of that Virtual Office. However, that same leader must also be able to be flexible and adapt to new technologies and ideas as well as the teams and people that make up the Virtual Office. The Virtual Office is a living organism where many of its traits and features are not readily evident (especially since, due to the geographic dispersion of its participants, the normal in-office senses of sight and sound are dulled) and require a creative individual to comprehend, analyze, and modulate, to tune the environment within which the Virtual Office will best thrive. The challenge here is that the creative and dynamic individual is rarely simultaneously the super-organized one — finding the right person with both abilities further raises the bar in the challenge associated with creating a successfully functioning Virtual Office.
  • Employees. Those that are seeking the benefits of and adaptable to the company’s functioning Virtual Office mechanisms. (I will save a more detailed discussion of personnel management for a future blog post.)

As a matter of fact, there are many companies that can benefit from having a Virtual Office, including a few start-ups with which I have worked. Many more established companies often do not have the types of processes in place that easily extend to address the direct needs of a Virtual Office. Some can adapt, most can’t. Typically, it will be easier to establish a Virtual Office for a specific sub-task or sub-group, not the company core, for example, through outsourcing.

If the management is not capable of the above referenced traits and able to not just communicate, but to over-communicate with the dispersed team, then it won’t work. Time spent on budgets will balloon, teams will become frustrated with management and with each other; it may hold together for a while due to some strong players, but in the end, will … end.

Additional Variables.

Recruiting and Hiring. After having the right and appropriately compatible management in place and expectations aligned with the reality of the Virtual Office, the next most important key to the success of the Virtual Office lies within the recruitment process and the individuals / teams brought on board. I will discuss Virtual Office recruitment and the types and trends being seen in future The Product Guy blog posts.

Decentralization. Organizational structure of the Virtual Office directly impacts the processes and the level and type of communication and planning that will best suit it. The more decentralized, the more work that can get done; but, creating a largely decentralized work environment from scratch, where many of your employees may be new and still learning where everything is located, while an ideal to strive toward, is not necessarily the right first few steps to take. Decentralize as growth occurs, as the team foundation solidifies, and the more experienced, higher-skilled employees reveal themselves and can be leveraged in the gradual decentralization of the various processes.

Organic v. Manufactured. I have seen quite a few organically grown Virtual Offices, with a great example being the Automattic people behind WordPress. By organic, I am referring to the recruitment and building of a virtual office from individuals that have had a long standing work relationship with the company in some facility that are, more out of formality, dubbed with a full-time position. For an organically growth entity, there are no new processes or acclamation, they have been working as an informal (or formal) Virtual Office for some time — a very ideal scenario. Note, there continue to be very few manufactured, 100% Virtual Offices out there, recruiting and training newly discovered team members. For the right variables to line up …the right management and team, with the additional alignment of expectations that is required remains uncommon… the right ingredients really (typically) have to be there from day one.

As the skills of people, that make use of the evolving products and tools of the Internet that facilitate the Virtual Office, evolve and become more complex, we can expect to see more 100% Virtual Offices at the core of real companies become reality. But, for now, the skill set and necessary alignment of all of the variables in the 100% Virtual Office model, the manufactured (not organic) model of the virtual company continues to be rare.

Promises.

The Virtual Office holds, for many, the promise of many efficiencies. Nonetheless, it is important to understand and align your expectations of what you will be able to achieve through the creation of a Virtual Office before you dive-in.

The prevalence and adoption of the Virtual Office as the primary organizational unit of the modern company, at this stage of the Internet, is neither a function of the current state of evolution of Internet products that are being created by these companies, nor the tools for the facilitation of the success of the Virtual Office, but is, in reality, a function of 2 parts…

  1. Time. Can the company support the efforts of the Virtual Office? Stand behind the individual responsible for running it? Accept the burden of extra time overhead, greater flexibility of deadlines, and some of the newer uncertainty introduced into the timelines through a distributed office where when miscommunications occur, their impact is magnified?
  2. Multi-skilled leader. Do you have the right person to successfully lead the Virtual Office? Does that person have the expertise with operations and their processes, as well as possess the hyper-organizational skills required to keep everything working like clock-work? Is that person highly communicative and able to convey complex information easily and with rare misunderstandings? Is that person also both flexible and creative, able to adapt/modify the processes and tools needed as goals and situations change?

Those companies that are not able to honestly answer ‘YES’ to both parts, are not right for the Virtual Office. Companies that can honestly answer ‘yes’ to both are rare, indeed. Remember, this is not a put-down to those incompatible companies. Every company has different needs and different groups of employees with different skill sets. It is rare to find all of the necessary skills in a single Virtual Office leader (often these skills are found amongst multiple individuals – not the ideal for a Virtual Office) where the time flexibility exists AND all of the good and not-so-good expectations are simultaneously aligned.

The Virtual Office is often misunderstood as the promise of the Internet, the idealization of the inherent empowerment of the Internet, but, in reality, the 100% Virtual Office, is just another tool, that, when it’s the right fit, can really produce positive and concrete results.

Good luck!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy