In the platform wars between Facebook on the one side and MySpace, Google, and the whole OpenSocial crew on the other, the side that makes it easier for application developers to make the most money will win. Advertising in social networks has always been problematic, and with an advertising recession upon us those already-low ad rates are going to get lower, not higher. The other way to make money on these platforms is to try to charge for apps themselves or sell things through the apps. But to do that developers first need a payment and billing system to tap into.
Less than an hour ago, MySpace COO Amit Kapur revealed at the Web 2.0 Summit that MySpace is working on its own payments and virtual gift products that MySpace developers will be able to add to their own apps.
Facebook has its own virtual gifts, but has not yet opened that to developers. (Although there is a gift economy inside Facebook powered by other companies). And Facebook has been rumored to be working on a payments system since forever.
iPhone’s App Store has proven that, at least on mobile phones, people are willing to pay for apps. Bringing that model to social networks could work if the quality of the apps goes up and the number goes down. One problem with Facebook and MySpace apps is that there are too many of them. there are no barriers to entry. Charging for apps, or trying to sell add-on services through them, would force the startups and developers creating them to build something that people are actually willing to pay for.
And it is not just the developers who are in a sudden rush to figure out how they are going to make money. Facebook and MySpace are also under more pressure to ramp up revenues these days.
The challenge to switching over to such a model from the current free-for-all is that the value of many of these apps is directly correlated with how many people use them. (More specifically, with how many of your friends use them). The minute someone charges for an app, the adoption rate goes way down. So some aspect of most of these apps will likely always be free. But the ability to charge for extras or for a more fully-featured experience might actually result in better apps being produced.
In any case, the race is on to provide alternative revenue streams besides ads to app developers. Will MySpace beat Facebook to the payments party?
(Photo by Paul Falardeau).