Mind to Market

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Google's OpenSocial

I've been investigating Google's new open standard for social networks: OpenSocial, is this a big step forward in integrating social network sites or an attempt to block Facebook's advance? There is no doubt that developers are faced with a confusing assortment of APIs to negotiate if they are going to link information from one Web site to another. And the information these APIs present is fairly standard stuff: names, demographics, relations, so why shouldn't this be standardized to make it easier to access?

Well for one thing Facebook is huge and growing bigger every day. They have an API which plenty of developers use. The big kid doesn't need a standard; it's the runners up that need one if they have any hope of staying in the game. And Google is certainly playing catch up here.

In many ways Google's initiative is similar to the caBIG initiative set up by the National Cancer Institute three years ago. Concerned about the proliferation of data silos among their grant recipients that hindered sharing and access to data, the NCI set up the Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) as a way to standardize APIs among institutions. NCI has even set up a certification process to rate institutions on how well they comply with these standards.

An unfortunate downside to this standardization of APIs is the inability to access specialized functions or data that may reside at the data source. The standardization committee can be petitioned to extend the standard, but it is inevitable that not all terminology will be included. In some cases the data source will have their own API through which developers can access the non-standard information.

Social networks have a long way to go before they reach the level of complexity of cancer biology. So imposing a standard now may not be a big restriction on the information. At least developers will have now have a choice; use the OpenSocial API to access all social networks or site specific APIs if there are some specialized information to retrieve.

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