As we reported on Friday, Google will be launching its own data portability effort called Friend Connect. It will be announcing more details about the preview later tonight, but in a press release this morning it confirms:
Websites that are not social networks may still want to be social — and now they can be, easily. With Google Friend Connect (see http://www.google.com/friendconnect following this evening’s Campfire One), any website owner can add a snippet of code to his or her site and get social features up and running immediately without programming — picking and choosing from built-in functionality like user registration, invitations, members gallery, message posting, and reviews, as well as third-party applications built by the OpenSocial developer community.
Visitors to any site using Google Friend Connect will be able to see, invite, and interact with new friends, or, using secure authorization APIs, with existing friends from social sites on the web, including Facebook, Google Talk, hi5, orkut, Plaxo, and more.
Friend Connect will work with existing standards such as OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial, as well as with data access APIs from Facebook, Google, and MySpace. The announcement comes on the heels of similar announcements from MySpace and Facebook (MySpace’s Data Availability and Facebook Connect). As Michael noted on Friday:
The reason these companies are rushing to get products out the door is because whoever is a player in this space is likely to control user data over the long run. If users don’t have to put profile and friend information into multiple sites, they will gravitate towards one site that they identify with, and then allow other sites to access that data.
Update: I was able to talk with Google engineering director David Glazer to get some more details. The point of Friend Connect, he says, is to “, give users a shortcut to connections they’ve built up somewhere else.” So if you go to a Website that is part of Friend Connect, you will be able to sign in under your Facebook, Google Talk, hi5, Orkut, or Plaxo IDs (you choose which one you want to sign in under, with more options coming). Then you authorize the site to go out and retrieve your friend’s list from that network. Any of those friends who also happen to be members of the site you are on will then show up and you can interact with them.
Friend Connect is geared at the Long Tail of small sites that don’t even have any user information. It allows them to tap into bigger sites and piggyback on their user sign-in and registration, list of friends, and interactions between those friends. It takes advantage of many existing standards, including Facebook’s (it is not an official partner, but it Google is taking advantage of its published APIs). Of the many standards emerging, Glazer thinks that OAuth is the way to do it right.
Glazer admits that Friend Connect is but one small step towards the larger goal of being able to connect to any friend on any application, on any site. But it is not there yet. For instance, it doesn’t work with Google’s Social Graph API, and many more social and identity networks still need to be connected.
The bigger downside of Friend Connect is that Websites using it cannot mash up the data with their own to make compelling new applications. Glazer confirmed that the data will be sent to third party sites via an iframe rather than directly through a set of APIs (as Michael speculated on Friday). However, Glazer also says that he wouldn’t be surprised if eventually Google or somebody else makes it possible for Websites to combine the Friend Connect data with their own.
Basically, what Friend Connect does is gather this data from big social networks in whatever way they make available and then presents it in a uniform way to third party sites. It also works as a pass-through between those third party sites and the big repositories of social data. This eliminates any programming hassles on the part of small Websites that want to tap into these social networks, but it also positions Google as the central switch connecting all of these different identity systems.