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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

OpenSocial: Behind the Corporate Firewall

OpenSocial is an API for consumer social network sites like LinkedIn, Orkut and Hi5, but its greatest value may come from use behind the corporate firewall.

OpenSocial is really two separate things: a portal framework that describes how embedded content can interact with a page, and a glued-on social network API that provides a way to access things like profile and friend data.

The portal framework is just Google's iGoogle framework rebranded, and the social-network API is a least-common denominator mashup of the APIs from a selection of big commercial social networks combined a dash of influence from the Facebook API.

Both the portal framework and the social API are ok, but neither one is really best-of-breed. There are many widely deployed, battle tested portal APIs available (JSR 168 and Sharepoint spring to mind), and on the social side Facebook's API is (at least for the moment) superior.

But in this case, I'd argue worse is better.

The OpenSocial gadget API was designed to be used by web developers rather than corporate IT drones. Authoring a simple OpenSocial gadget is no harder than writing a web page, and the technology is nearly identical. It is much faster to get started with OpenSocial than to learn to program for a traditional corporate portal[1].

The social API is important, too. ERP systems (to optimize the use of your company's stuff) and CRM systems (to optimize the use of your company's customers) are important, but most companies claim their people are their most important resource[2]. Anybody who's spent time on Facebook or Twitter probably buys that there are advantages to including social network features in enterprise applications[3]. OpenSocial, as a well-documented, free-to-implement standard is an obvious choice.

I've been spouting some of this stuff whenever I got the chance, so it was encouraging to see Atlassian (darling of the developer tools world) say something similar at their annual conference[4].

I have a selfish reason for wanting OpenSocial behind the corporate firewall: I'd like Praxis Bridge to have a way to keep in touch with students after the course is over, and I'd like the students to have a way to keep in touch with each other. A silo'ed social network for a limited-time event is useful, but a way to hook into the user's everyday working social network is much more valuable. And since the OpenSocial architecture allows container administrators control over the information leaked to external gadgets, I think it would have a shot at getting past (justifiably) paranoid corporate gatekeepers. But that's a whole 'nother blog post.

[1] Or, well, it seems that way, which is the same. Isn't the whole "worse is better" thing annoying?

[2] On a recruiting brochure you can probably assume a line like "people are our most important asset" is just the standard BS, but when a company's 10-Q says it you can assume they're serious.

[3] ERP systems have human resources modules, but that's not quite the same thing as being "social network enabled". On the other hand, the ERP vendors are going to start buying up "behind the firewall social network" vendors just as soon as the downturn ends, and at that point OpenSocial becomes just another standard ERP module.

[4] OpenSocial comes in in the keynote at about 9:45. There's a whole session about their new plugin architecture at http://blogs.atlassian.com/news/2009/01/atlascamp_video_1.html. Thanks to Tracy Snell for the pointer.

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