Google Dropped the Ball on Open Social Networks...Can Anyone Catch It?
Speaking at the D9 technology conference, Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt said he takes responsibility for failing to counter Facebook's growth in the social networking space. Schmidt attributed the failure to being "busy" and there is no question that social networking has been an Achilles heel for Google. Its major efforts in the space, including Orkut and Google Buzz, have not found success. Still, the major social networks are walled gardens, and if any company can push more open social networking standards, it has to be Google.
If you've used Twitter and Facebook for any length of time, you've probably come to notice that they are walled gardens--closed systems. We've noted before that, as popular communications tools, Twitter and Facebook harken back to the early days of email, when you had to, say, have an MCI Mail or CompuServe account to email other people who had the same types of accounts. In email's case, that quickly changed, and a more open approach won out.
There are open alternatives to popular social networks in development. Diaspora is a particularly notable one. But Diaspora is an upstart project that represents no threat to Facebook at this point. Among other things, Diaspora introduces unnecessary levels of complexiy to social networking. It's also worth noting that Identi.ca has been pursuing open source social networking for a long time, but has a tiny fraction of Facebook's audience.
The failure of open source tools to compete with juggernauts like Facebook and Twitter comes from the contagion factor that drives social networks forward. After all, only a few years ago, MySpace was all the rage, and Friendster had its day as well. At this point, it promises to be very hard for Google or any other company to challenge the hegemony of Facebook and Twitter.
In the long run, Facebook will likely face more serious challenges from open alternatives to its service. However, Schmidt's acknowledgement that he dropped the ball on social networking is significant. More than any other technology space, the leading contagion-driven social networks leave little room for any dropped balls. Google has the best chance at taking a shot, since it has popular tools such as Gmail and Google Apps, but its window of opportunity to challenge the walled gardens is rapidly closing.