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In May 2007, Facebook followed News Feeds with another initiative that set it head and shoulders above its competition. At the firm’s first f8 (pronounced “fate”) Developers Conference, Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage and announced that he was opening up the screen real estate on Facebook to other application developers. Facebook published a set of application programming interfaces (APIs)Programming hooks, or guidelines, published by firms that tell other programs how to get a service to perform a task such as send or receive data. For example, Amazon.com provides APIs to let developers write their own applications and Websites that can send the firm orders. that specified how programs could be written to run within and interact with Facebook. Now any programmer could write an application that would run inside a user’s profile. Geeks of the world, Facebook’s user base could be yours! Just write something good.
Developers could charge for their wares, offer them for free, and even run ads. And Facebook let developers keep what they made (Facebook does revenue share with app vendors for some services, such as the Facebook Credits payment service, mentioned later). This was a key distinction; MySpace initially restricted developer revenue on the few products designed to run on their site, at times even blocking some applications. The choice was clear, and developers flocked to Facebook.
To promote the new apps, Facebook would run an Applications area on the site where users could browse offerings. Even better, News Feed was a viral injection that spread the word each time an application was installed. Your best friend just put up a slide show app? Maybe you’ll check it out, too. The predictions of $1 billion in social network ad spending were geek catnip, and legions of programmers came calling. Apps could be cobbled together on the quick, feeds made them spread like wildfire, and the early movers offered adoption rates never before seen by small groups of software developers. People began speaking of the Facebook Economy. Facebook was considered a platform. Some compared it to the next Windows, Zuckerberg the next Gates (hey, they both dropped out of Harvard, right?).
And each application potentially added more value and features to the site without Facebook lifting a finger. The initial event launched with sixty-five developer partners and eighty-five applications. There were some missteps along the way. Some applications were accused of spamming friends with invites to install them. There were also security concerns and apps that violated the intellectual property of other firms (see the “Scrabulous” sidebar below), but Facebook worked to quickly remove errant apps, improve the system, and encourage developers. Just one year in, Facebook had marshaled the efforts of some four hundred thousand developers and entrepreneurs, twenty-four thousand applications had been built for the platform, 140 new apps were being added each day, and 95 percent of Facebook members had installed at least one Facebook application. As Sarah Lacy, author of Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good, put it, “with one masterstroke, Zuck had mobilized all of Silicon Valley to innovate for him.”
With feeds to spread the word, Facebook was starting to look like the first place to go to launch an online innovation. Skip the Web, bring it to Zuckerberg’s site first. Consider iLike: within the first three months, the firm saw installs of its Facebook app explode to seven million, more than doubling the number of users the firm was able to attract through the Web site it introduced the previous year. ILike became so cool that by September, platinum rocker KT Tunstall was debuting tracks through the Facebook service. A programmer named Mark Pincus wrote a Texas hold ’em game at his kitchen table.J. Guynn, “A Software Industry @ Facebook,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2007. Today his social gaming firm, Zynga, is a powerhouse—a profitable firm with over three dozen apps, over 230 million users,D. MacMillan, “Zynga Enlarges Its War Chest,” BusinessWeek, December 17, 2009. and more than $600 million in annual revenue.M. Learmonth and A. Klaasen, “Facebook Apps Will Make More Money Than Facebook in 2009,” Silicon Alley Insider, May 18, 2009. Some of Zynga’s revenues come from apps that run on MySpace or other networks, too. Also see N. Carolson, “The Profitable, $100 Million-a-Year Startup You’ve Never Heard Of,” Business Insider, July 27, 2009; and N. Carlson and K. Angelova, “Chart of the Day: FarmVille-Maker Zynga’s Revenues Reach $600 Million, Fueled by Social Obligations,” April 26, 2010. Zynga games include MafiaWars, Vampires, and the wildly successful FarmVille, which boasts some twenty times the number of actual farms in the United States. App firm Slide (started by PayPal cofounder Max Levchin) scored investments from Legg Mason, and Fidelity pegged the firm’s value at $500 million.J. Hempel and M. Copeland, “Are These Widgets Worth Half a Billion?” Fortune, March 25, 2008. Playfish, the U.K. social gaming firm behind the Facebook hits Pet Society and Restaurant City, was snapped up by Electronic Arts for $300 million with another $100 million due if the unit hits performance targets. Lee Lorenzen, founder of Altura Ventures, an investment firm exclusively targeting firms creating Facebook apps, said, “Facebook is God’s gift to developers. Never has the path from a good idea to millions of users been shorter.”J. Guynn, “A Software Industry @ Facebook,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2007.
Once Facebook became a platform, Stanford professor BJ Fogg thought it would be a great environment for a programming class. In ten weeks his seventy-three students built a series of applications that collectively received over sixteen million installs. By the final week of class, several applications developed by students, including KissMe, Send Hotness, and Perfect Match, had received millions of users, and class apps collectively generated more than half a million dollars in ad revenue. At least three companies were formed from the course.
But legitimate questions remain. Are Facebook apps really a big deal? Just how important will apps be to adding sustained value within Facebook? And how will firms leverage the Facebook framework to extract their own value? A chart from FlowingData showed the top category, Just for Fun, was larger than the next four categories combined. That suggests that a lot of applications are faddish time wasters. Yes, there is experimentation beyond virtual Zombie Bites. Visa has created a small business network on Facebook (Facebook had some eighty thousand small businesses online at the time of Visa’s launch). Educational software firm Blackboard offered an application that will post data to Facebook pages as soon as there are updates to someone’s Blackboard account (new courses, whether assignments or grades have been posted, etc.). We’re still a long way from Facebook as a Windows rival, but the platform helped push Facebook to number one, and it continues to deliver quirky fun (and then some) supplied by thousands of developers off its payroll.
Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, two brothers in Kolkata, India, who run a modest software development company, decided to write a Scrabble clone as a Facebook application. The app, named Scrabulous, was social—users could invite friends to play, or they could search for new players looking for an opponent. Their application was a smash, snagging three million registered users and seven hundred thousand players a day after just a few months. Scrabulous was featured in PC World’s 100 best products of 2008, received coverage in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Wired, and was pulling in about twenty-five thousand dollars a month from online advertising. Way to go, little guys!H. Timmons, “Online Scrabble Craze Leaves Game Sellers at Loss for Words,” New York Times, March 2, 2008.
There is only one problem: the Agarwalla brothers didn’t have the legal rights to Scrabble, and it was apparent to anyone that from the name to the tiles to the scoring—this was a direct rip-off of the well-known board game. Hasbro owns the copyright to Scrabble in the United States and Canada; Mattel owns it everywhere else. Thousands of fans joined Facebook groups with names like “Save Scrabulous” and “Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous, Too.” Users in some protest groups pledged never to buy Hasbro games if Scrabulous was stopped. Even if the firms wanted to succumb to pressure and let the Agarwalla brothers continue, they couldn’t. Both Electronic Arts and RealNetworks have contracted with the firms to create online versions of the game.
While the Facebook Scrabulous app is long gone, the tale shows just one of the challenges of creating a platform. In addition to copyright violations, app makers have crafted apps that annoy, raise privacy and security concerns, purvey pornography, or otherwise step over the boundaries of good taste. Firms from Facebook to Apple (through its iTunes Store) have struggled to find the right mix of monitoring, protection, and approval while avoiding cries of censorship.