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David F Carr
David F Carr
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Social Standards: Web 2.0 Vs. Enterprise 2.0

The OpenSocial approach to defining social software standards has the backing of Jive, IBM, and others--and the scorn of upstarts like Yammer.

For enterprise social software vendors including IBM and Jive Software, OpenSocial is a key standard for adding social context to applications. But there is another school of thought.

"OpenSocial is what Google created for MySpace," Yammer CTO and co-founder Adam Pisoni told me dismissively during an interview about Yammer news feed integration with other cloud services. That's a reference to the origins of the standard, initially published in 2007, back when MySpace was still bigger than Facebook. Since then, of course, MySpace has faded and Google has struggled through multiple social media flops until catching fire, just recently with Google+. OpenSocial provided the basis for the Google Gadgets user interface components used in iGoogle and played a role in Orkut (the "big in Brazil" social network).

By making the association with MySpace, Pisoni was classifying OpenSocial as a technology whose time has passed. Why would you want to associate yourself with that, rather than model your social software after Facebook? Yammer has defined enterprise extensions to the Open Graph Protocol as the core of its integration strategy. The Open Graph Protocol is an open metadata standard that Facebook application partners can implement to define how articles and other content shared by members are represented in the Facebook news stream. Enterprise vendors can take advantage of it in the same way, extending it as necessary to reference invoices and requisitions rather than (or in addition to) articles and videos.

Although the protocol is open, Facebook confuses the issue by also using the term Open Graph to refer to proprietary innovations, as in the current Open Graph beta test of technologies for linking activity from applications and websites to a user's Facebook Timeline profile and activity stream. Other social websites and applications may be able to imitate Facebook as a de facto standards setter, but other elements of the Facebook platform aren't open standards in the same sense as the Open Graph Protocol.

At any rate, OpenSocial and the Open Graph Protocol aren't really direct competitors because they don't do the same things. OpenSocial defines a standard way for an application to be embedded in a social "container," where the container could be a social media website or an enterprise collaboration system such as the one from Jive, with mechanisms for the embedded application to request access to information and services from the container. This is how an embedded application would gain access to your friends list, for example. The Open Graph Protocol doesn't address that sort of scenario, although the broader Facebook platform does. There is no reason why OpenSocial and the Open Graph Protocol can't be used together, as complementary rather than competitive standards.

Still, the technologies may not be in competition, but they seem to represent two broader world views, or philosophies, or political camps, that are indeed clashing.

Pisoni said OpenSocial's whole approach to embedding applications in a social container is outdated. Yammer's view is that the best Web 2.0 applications provide rich user experiences that don't fit neatly in an HTML iFrame. Better to provide integration that reaches out from Yammer to connect with those other websites and applications and embeds inside them, while allowing them to pump updates into the Yammer news feed. Yammer is very oriented around the stream of updates as the most important element of a social system, he said.

Facebook itself is moving away from embedded apps, toward an integration that allows elements of the Facebook experience to be integrated with external websites and applications, Pisoni argued. That strikes me as an exaggeration, given that the iFrame integration method Facebook introduced earlier this year makes it possible to embed virtually any Web content or application within the frame of a Facebook app or page tab. But it's certainly also true that Facebook is colonizing the Web with the like button, social sign on, and other integrated applications. Part of the significance of iFrame integration was it allowed Facebook to use a lot of the same JavaScript and OAuth methods for either embedded apps or external apps.

When OpenSocial 2.0 was ratified in August, one of the main themes of the release was harmony with other social standards, such as the Activity specification for syndicating news feeds and OAuth for authorizing access to profile data and other social assets. OpenSocial 2.0.1, which finalizes the specification's support for OAuth 2.0, is currently up for a vote of the OpenSocial developer community. Support for OAuth 2.0 had previously been tagged as an "incubating" portion of the specification because OAuth 2.0 was still in the process of being finalized by the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Although everyone in the social software world seems to be in love with OAuth, the Yammer contingent is critical of other standards OpenSocial seeks to align itself with, such as Activity Pisoni said Open Graph is "a lot simpler of a description than Activity" and that the trend in social software is to "keep simplifying because, at the end of the day, it's about adoption."

OpenSocial advocates also tend to speak favorably about CMIS, the Content Management Interoperability Services standard, and its potential for integrating enterprise document management systems with social software. A more formal integration between CMIS and OpenSocial is under discussion.

When I spoke with Box CEO Aaron Levie prior to his keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 conference, he dismissed CMIS as too oriented toward "legacy" technology rather than the spirit of open Web standards. This was part of a conversation in which Levie dissed OpenSocial using almost the same words that Pisoni did.

"If I had to bet, I wouldn't bet on OpenSocial," Levie said. Google and MySpace may have embraced it but since Facebook didn't, developers have had little reason to invest in OpenSocial, he said.

When I organized a Designing Social Applications panel discussion for the Enterprise 2.0 conference and show, I wound up with an OpenSocial-friendly crowd, including OpenSocial board member Jonathan LeBlanc and Jive Software's Ryan Rutan (one of the people saying nice things about CMIS).

LeBlanc told me he hears that dismissive talk about MySpace a lot. It's true the initial OpenSocial specification "had all these weird social features and profile things that didn't make sense in a larger context," he said, during our Enterprise 2.0 panel discussion. Essentially, that early spec made too many assumptions about how a social system would be constructed. To make OpenSocial relevant to a broader audience, its architects broke it down into smaller components, making it possible to adopt just the portions that are relevant to your applications. With OpenSocial 2.0, they have moved to map OpenSocial to a family of other relevant standards like OAuth and Activity While OpenSocial may not be welcome at Facebook, MySpace and Google are far from its only fans, he said. It's widely used by social sites overseas, including the largest one in China, RenRen.

In the enterprise world, IBM has committed to supporting OpenSocial in multiple social software and collaboration products, with those releases to start coming in 2012. "For IBM to say that, that's big--a big, blue chip player in this space--and really lends credence" to OpenSocial, Rutan said. Because OpenSocial incorporates a common REST style of application integration, any well-built application ought to be able to integrate with the framework, he said. Most enterprise systems now offer REST interfaces, and even legacy applications can be adapted to include REST support, he said. Meanwhile, the rest of the OpenSocial specification is based on Web basics like HTML and JavaScript--making integration a much lower hurdle than with previous portal standards built around Java, for example.

Still, OpenSocial aspires to be an enterprise standard, influenced by companies like IBM who have worked to make sure it meets enterprise requirements. That may be precisely the reason it's treated with suspicion by upstarts who see themselves as more a part of Web 2.0 than Enterprise 2.0.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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