D-Day For Facebook App Developers

Facebook is holding a Developer Garage today at its offices in Palo Alto, and a number of new app policies will be formally announced. Some of the changes, though, are so dramatic that Facebook has briefed the bigger app developers in advance. And those developers are, to say the least, more than a little worried about the effect the changes will have on traffic and usage. One source we’ve spoken with estimates that the changes may drop usage on their apps by 70% or more (more on that below, some developers may use the changes to their advantage).

Like previous changes, Facebook is moving to clean up their user interface and try to get application spam under control. The changes will roll out over the next six months, we’ve heard.

Last week Facebook changed the way it publishes the news stream to users. For the last few months users have seen a constant Twitter-like stream of news from friends. Now the default view is algorithmic. A lot of applications (especially these guys) encourage users to add a status update every few minutes with what they’re up to – and when there was a constant stream of this stuff the apps benefited from all the extra traffic. That’s all muted now, and developers we spoke with say traffic and usage has declined 20% – 30% from just that one change.

And today Facebook will hit developers even harder. An even more lucrative traffic stream for apps comes from notifications – the pop up box in the lower right hand corner of Facebook that tells you when people leave comments or “like” your links and updates, etc. Today apps have free reign to publish into notifications without even telling the user. And they do it. A lot. When the changes go into effect, we’ve heard, apps will no longer be able to publish to notifications. There goes another 40% of traffic for the apps that use it heavily, say our sources.

Instead, developers will get apps back on the home page of users in the left sidebar, along with notifications of new messages from the application in that sidebar. There will also be a new channel in the messaging inbox for notifications from apps. And developers are also encouraged to create direct email relationships with users and communicate with them off-Facebook.

The overall plan will be to let users get notifications from apps they use and/or their friends use when they want them, but to get them out of the news feed, messages and notifications where they’re spammy. One source we spoke with says that developers who use the new tools properly may even get better quality communications with users. “Innovating developers will adjust,” said our source.

There are lots of other changes coming today as well, but our understanding is the notification prohibition is the big hit to developers. As a Facebook user, I’m ecstatic. But App developers aren’t. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus had to cancel a talk at Harvard Business School last week to get back with him team and figure out how they’ll deal with the changes.

Here’s the other big change today: Facebook is apparently a little tired of making and then endlessly changing developer rules to plug loopholes and keep the user experience tolerable. So instead of trying to put in writing everything that developers can and cannot do to spread word about their apps, they’ll move to more of an Apple/iPhone model. Meaning they’ll reserve the right to just say “we don’t like what you’re doing” and take action against the app. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean applications need to pre-approved like they are on the iPhone.