Third party apps are important to the Facebook phenomenon — they keep users inside Facebook’s web no matter where they are. Even beyond the addition of new data, a developer ecosystem establishes Facebook as a platform instead of a service, and provides the attractive possibility for a developer to gain traction and users quite quickly.
But recently, this relationship has hit some bumps in the road. Facebook’s value as a business rests on its social graph and its possession of your data — it’s all the company has to monetize (although monetization through Facebook Credits appears potentially successful too), and it has to protect the value of that data at all costs. The company knows that providing its social graph to developers through an API can make or break another product’s initial success, but it obviously knows it needs to dole out that access very carefully.
Other companies have struggled to define the platform/developer relationship and have had varying degrees of success. Apple tried early on to keep apps out of its App store that might compete with its products, and Twitter cracked down this summer on third-party apps duplicating its products and using its data, even if the goodwill of developers helped make Twitter what it is today. Ultimately, after the FTC began an investigation into the Apple App Store approval policies, the company had to clarify what exactly it was looking for in third-party apps, and what kind of competition it would permit. More recently, it looks like Twitter will mostly cut off access to competitive products and build its own products for the functions it wants to include on the site.
So how does Facebook plan to navigate the relationship, which has come under fire recently? Here’s how they attempted to clarify their stance today:
“Reciprocity and Replicating core functionality: (a) Reciprocity: Facebook Platform enables developers to build personalized, social experiences via the Graph API and related APIs. If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook. (b) Replicating core functionality: You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.”
What’s confusing about Facebook is that it seemingly encourages developers to build for Facebook in areas like games, but for everyone else, Facebook is making it increasingly harder to tell which apps are okay and which count as competition. The new regulations say that you can only use Facebook data if you don’t compete with the company’s core functions; presumably games like Words with Friends or exercise apps like Nike+, which seem outside of Facebook’s focus right now. The other part to the regulations is that you must make the data created in your app easily shareable with with Facebook (a.k.a., to clutter your friends newsfeeds, generate more data, and drive traffic back to the apps). As AllThingsD’s Mike Isaac wrote, Facebook wants a return on its data investment.
But as Facebook grows larger and gets into a variety of new areas like photo-sharing (Instagram), messaging and voice (Messenger), search (Graph Search), and even disappearing photos (Poke), it’s less clear for businesses that are starting out how they can avoid Facebook, which is still undergoing rapid change in its first year as a public company. Just this month, Facebook blocked the voice-messaging app Voxer (competitive with Messenger) and social search engine Yandex (competitive with Graph Search). As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine pointed out, Snapchat probably thought it was totally cool — until Facebook built Poke in a matter of days. Dalton Caldwell said he got positive feedback from Facebook on the developer platform he built, until they rolled out their own developer platform and tried to shut his down.
At face value, it doesn’t seem like Vine really competes with Facebook much, since Facebook doesn’t really have a video product (at least right now). And it’s downright easy to share Vine videos back to Facebook. But it’s clear Facebook and Twitter have a contentious relationship; so it was see ya, Vine.
While the company assured developers in a blog post Friday that most people will have nothing to worry about, building your business on top of a technology platform that you can’t control is always a risk. Sometimes it’s a risk worth taking when you need to get your product off the ground.
But when it’s not even clear what that platform is trying to be? Best of luck to you.