At the end of Dave Morin’s Facebook talk at FOWA he kindly did the usual, and accepted questions from the audience. For all of the other talks that I participated in, the questions were fired off by fellow developers and were generally technical.
This time around, it was time for the reporters. They popped out of nowhere to ask the usual silly questions that you KNOW the guy can’t answer. I get them all the time for Google. “When is the Google Deathstar coming out”. What are they thinking? Do they think that I will slip and think “hmm, I guess we released the Deathstar so I can start talking about it up on stage here!”
Anyway, one of the rants hidden in a question was about how the platform competes with third party applications. It is as though it is so novel that Facebook has some apps and features like the Wall, Videos, Photos, …. and that they may overlap with applications that others have developed. This is not new guys:
- Microsoft: They are ruthless right? They keep expanding out with applications on Windows. From MS Paint to an office suite to a TCP/IP stack to a Media Player to a web browser … fast forward … anti-virus and firewall software.
- Apple: iLife + iWork. How dare they.
- Google: Various Google Gadgets (e.g. gmail viewer)
- Facebook: As said, a better Wall. Friend grouping. Videos. Photos.
So, everyone does it. I think the key points from the platform vendors side are:
- Make your applications true showcases. Apple sets the standard on its platform, and developers often compare their work to these showcases. If you are going to do apps on your own platform, make they ridiculously good
- Share knowledge on how you produce your fantastic applications
- Be transparent. I love how the Google Gears team was allowed to follow their vision on getting the code out when it was a baby. You could imagine that some of the Google teams, that could maybe be interested in taking their apps offline, would like to have worked on a private Gears platform…. and only announce it when all of the apps are ready. Instead we did the opposite, and the side effect is that Zoho has an opportunity to be the first online word processor to work offline wth Gears (not Google Docs). This is actually a good thing for Google Gears itself, as it isn’t meant to be about Google. We wanted to make sure there was a level playing field.
- Try to be good to the community by letting people know when you stomp on them. Microsoft at least told Norton and co. that they were getting into the security business natively. This allows your developers to choose whether to directly compete, or head off to a niche
The “niche” is key. You KNOW that Facebook is going to make its profile page better, which will include a better wall (sorry SuperWall) or better friend grouping (sorry TopFriends). As a third party developer you know the risk.
If you go into something generic, and it becomes popular, expect the platform vendor to do something in that space.
If you go into something niche, then you are probably safer. If you make a killer application for lawyers, then you will probably be safe.
If you decide that you want to target everyone and build a generic app, you just have to know that either:
- a) If successful you will get competition from others, potentially including the platform
- b) At least have a bit of time to make money on top
In general, make a product rather than a feature.
But wait, isn’t Facebook a little different? The virality model is such that the big guys like RockMe have an advantage in that they can watch out for anything popular, and quickly jump in and use their overall platform to promote their quickly-hacked-up solution.
You come up with the next cool mini-app, and then they clone it and advertise the hell out of their clone on their most popular applications.
That is life. It isn’t new. Big players are able to do that on the other platforms too.
Again, you have to assume competition and use your unique assets to counter it… or sell out to the big guy! :)