modular innovation review

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 “

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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 (, Friendster, hi5, Hyves, imeem, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Oracle, orkut, Plaxo,, 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.


  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I saw your tweet on this post and am glad I checked it out! A very clear and helpful introduction to OpenSocial, which I’m only just starting to learn more about.Thanks!



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  3. Hey Jeremy,
    Wow, this is a huge write up on Open Social. I’m following Google’s initiative in this space as closely as I can (given the time I just don’t have these days).

    Thanks for stopping by our site and signing up though. Let me know if you have any questions.



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