Bebo Embraces Facebook Apps With Its "Open Applications Platform"

When Google developed OpenSocial, it was intended to obviate the need for developers to reprogram the same social networking applications for separate platforms. Several social networks without their own proprietary developer platforms, including Bebo, quickly embraced OpenSocial as their opportunity to get in on some of the social-application action that Facebook monopolized with its pioneering platform.

However, OpenSocial was late to the party since thousands of applications had already been developed for Facebook before Google’s solution was even announced, let alone implemented on any substantial number of social networks. (It is still not ready for prime time). Thus, it has become inevitable that developers who want to spread their extant applications beyond Facebook’s walls will need to redesign their applications for other social networks.

Or has it? Not if Bebo, the (distant) third-largest social network in the United States, can help it.

Today, Bebo is announcing the availability of a new platform called the “Open Application Platform”, but it’s not really a new platform. Rather, it’s like a clone of Facebook’s proprietary platform. The idea is to create a platform that matches the functionality and structure of Facebook’s platform so closely that it’s easy to deploy applications built for Facebook on Bebo, with little or no changes to the code.

Bebo’s new platform accepts something called SNQL and SNML (as in, social networking query language and social networking markup language), each of which mirrors Facebook’s FQL and FBML, albeit with subtle differences. CEO Michael Birch says that it has been developing these parallel languages for about five months and in communication with Facebook itself, which has been assisting Bebo in its efforts to essentially adopt its platform.

Bebo’s platform is up-to-speed with Facebook’s platform as it was six weeks ago, so it does not yet mirror Facebook’s platform perfectly (and Bebo will need to continually work on it in an effort to keep matching Facebook). However, Bebo says that even applications written in FQL and FBML themselves, instead of the adapted SNQL and SNML, should be able work on Bebo. We’ll just have to see how well this emulation works.

While applications from about 40 launch partners will go live tonight on the “new” platform (with a total of 50 applications), the platform won’t be open to other developers until a couple of weeks or so from now. Bebo says that it picked its launch partners with an eye for variety, selecting big and small ones with focuses on different types of applications. Each of them has been allowed to develop only one or two applications for the platform until it opens up to the public. Among these developers are, Flixster, iLike, RockYou, Flixster, Mesmo TV, Gap, Slide, and Yahoo.

Applications will be organized in a directory where users can sort them by “Top Rated”, “Freshest”, “A-Z”, and “Z-A”. Apps on the top rated page will be sorted by the five-star ratings that users have given them. The freshest page will display the newest apps on Bebo. And the latter two criteria will organize the apps alphabetically and reverse alphabetically. You can also keyword search for applications and view them by particular categories, such as “Business”, “Games”, “Music”, and “Travel”.

Each particular application will be given a full, skinnable profile that contains the same features and functionality of a normal user profile. These application profiles can even install instances of other applications, and their skins (which can be branded with, say, Gap or NBC) can be grabbed by users and implemented on their own pages, which may help these brands’ identities spread virally along with their apps.

Deployments of the same applications on both Facebook and Bebo will have the potential to link up with each other. For example, Facebook users of Bunchball’s Nitro gaming application will be able to play against Bebo users of the same application.

It’s important to keep in mind that Bebo is not ditching OpenSocial but rather opting to support two platforms side-by-side. Their wager seems to be that Facebook’s platform isn’t going anywhere despite Google’s initiative, and that it’s best to make friends with developers who have already put long hours into programming for Facebook. The possibility that Bebo can even pull this off suggests that on a certain level, OpenSocial is unnecessary. And were other social networks to adopt the same tactic, OpenSocial’s mission would become compromised by the ubiquity of Facebook’s own platform.

As things stand, it’s hard for me to foresee numerous social networks struggling constantly to ensure that their platforms mirror Facebook’s own. Since Facebook has been aware of Bebo’s intentions for quite some time, and since it faces the oncoming tide of OpenSocial that threatens to isolate it in its proprietary ways, it wouldn’t surprise me if Facebook has been working to standardize its platform and more easily allow for adoption by other networks. What we see today with Bebo may be only the tip of the iceberg. Then again, it could also just be an experiment that doesn’t end up doing much to affect the social networking developer scene.

See our coverage of Bebo’s first platform effort, the Open Media platform, which opened its network up to media companies just about a month ago.

Update: Bebo will allow Flash applications to run on profile pages, although they will only allow user’s to designate one Flash applet to auto-play music on page load. All Flash applets will be able to auto-play in other ways, say, to play video. The point of this is to allow users to express themselves as much as possible, but without making things too out of control. CEO Michael Birch has described Bebo as a hybrid of sorts between Facebook and MySpace, meshing each of their best parts: the former’s utility and the latter’s capacity for self-expression.

Birch also says that eventually users will also be able to “tab” their pages, first putting excess applications on a second page of their profile, and eventually adding any number of custom named tabs for sets of applications (e.g. a “Games” tab for all your gaming-related applications). As with the Facebook platform, developers will not be allowed to display advertisements on profile pages themselves.

Update 2: Facebook has come out and officially supported the use of its platform on other social networks, saying “we’ll even license the Facebook Platform methods and tags to other platforms.”