The People Graph

Social networks have been all the rage for over a decade now. In the past years, Facebook has consolidated their leadership in personal networking and Linkedin has become the undisputed leader of business networking.

A side effect of this consolidation is that business models have also consolidated, leaving out a lot of potential applications and use-cases that do not fit the current models.

Both Facebook and Linkedin have business models that focus on monetizing their respective social graphs through advertising. LinkedIn also monetizes search, analytics, and recruiting.

To protect their data and business, they have largely cut off API access for third parties. Consequently, building third party applications that use these networks has become very hard, if not impossible.

At the same time, building a new social network has become harder due to the fact that most people already have their social networking needs covered by the existing offerings. Most wannabe new social networks face the ’empty room problem’, where they don’t become interesting until enough users are using it.

Inbot was founded on the idea that sales is fundamentally a social process where building relationships and trust between people is the key to success. Yet, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems used today by most salespeople are anything but social.

CRM is mostly used to manually keep track of conversations with customers. Relationship data is shared only within the sales team, and when sales people change jobs, all aggregated data in the CRM is left behind and they take their social network with them.

Marketing automation has emerged as a software-based mechanism to help companies to generate leads in a more automated fashion. The problem with it today is that the spam and noise generated by these applications is deafening, and making everyone harder to reach.

Initially, Inbot started out as a disruptive play to make CRMs find and provide links to new business opportunities. Over time, we realized that we should focus solely on social lead generation, and decouple it from teams and companies that CRM vendors target.

Since last August, we have rolled out a community that we hope will one day rival that of Linkedin but yet works very differently.

Continue reading “The People Graph”

Missing the point

Like most of you (probably), I’ve been reading the news around Google Buzz with interest. At this point, the regular as clockwork announcements from Google are treated somewhat routinely by the various technology blogs. Google announced foo, competitor bar says this and expert John Doe says that. Bla bla bla, revolutionary, bla bla similar to bla, bla. Etc. You might be tempted to dismiss Buzz as yet another Google service doomed to be ignored by most users. And you’d be right. Except it’s easy to forget that most of those announcements actually do have some substance. Sure, there have been a few less than exciting ones lately and not everything Google touches turns into gold but there is some genuinely cool stuff being pushed out into the world from Mountain View on a monthly, if not more frequent, basis.

So this week it’s Google Buzz. Personally, I think Buzz won’t last. At least not in its current gmail centric form. Focusing on Buzz is missing the point however. It will have a lasting effect similar to what happened with RSS a few years back. The reason is very simple, Google is big enough to cause everybody else to implement their APIs, even if buzz is not going to be a huge success. They showed this with open social, which world + dog now implements, despite it being very unsuccessful in user space. Google wave, same thing so far. The net effect of Buzz and the APIs that come with it will be internet wide endorsement of a new real time notification protocol, pubsubhubbub. In effect this will take twitter (already an implementer) to the next level. Think pubsubhubbub sinks and sources all over the internet and absolutely massive traffic between those sources and sinks. Every little internet site will be able to notify the world of whatever updates it has, every person on the internet will be able to subscribe to such notifications directly, or more importantly, indirectly to whichever other websites choose to consume, funnel and filter those notifications on their behalf. It’s so easy to implement that few will resist the temptation to do so.

Buzz is merely the first large scale consumer of pubsubhub notifications. Friendfeed tried something similar with RSS, was bought by Facebook and successfully eliminated as a Facebook competitor. However, Pubsubhubbub is the one protocol that Facebook won’t be able to ignore. For now they seem to stick with their closed everything model. This means there is Facebook and the rest of the world and well guarded boundaries between those. As the rest of the world becomes more interesting in terms of notifications, keeping Facebook isolated as it is today will become harder. Technically, there are no obstacles. The only reason Facebook is isolated is because it chooses to be isolated. Anybody who is not Facebook has a stake in committing to pubsubhubbub to be able to compete with Facebook. So Facebook becoming a consumer of pubsubhubbub type notifications is a matter of time, if only because it will simply be the easiest way for them to syndicate third party notifications (which is their core business). I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t got something implemented already. Facebook becoming a source of notifications is a different matter though. The beauty of the whole thing is that the more notifications originate outside of Facebook, the less this will matter. Already some of their status updates are simply syndicated from elsewhere (e.g. mine go through Twitter). Facebook is merely a place people go to see an aggregated view on what their friends do. It is not a major source of information, and ironically the limitations imposed by Facebook make it less competitive as such.

So, those dismissing Buzz for whatever reason are missing the point: it’s the APIs stupid! Open APIs, unrestricted syndication and aggregation of notifications, events, status updates, etc. It’s been talked about for ages, it’s about to happen in the next few months. First thing to catch up will be those little social network sites that almost nobody uses but collectively are used by everybody. Hook them up to buzz, twitter, etc. Result, more detailed event streams popping up outside of Facebook. Eventually people will start hooking up Facebook as well, with or without the help of Facebook. By this time endorsement will seem like a good survival strategy for Facebook.

OpenID, the identity landscape, and social networks

I’m still getting used to no longer being in nokia research center. One of my disappointments of being in NRC and being a vocal proponent of openid, social networks, etc. was that despite lots of discussion on this topic not much has happened in terms of me getting room to work on these topics or me convincing a lot of people about my opinions on these topics. I have one publication that is due out whenever the magazine involved gets around to approving and printing the article. But that’s it.

So, I take great pleasure in observing how things are evolving lately and finding that I’ve been pushing the right topics all along. Earlier this week, Facebook became a relying party for OpenID. Outside the OpenID community and regular techcrunch readers, this seems to have not been a major news story. Since, just about anybody I discussed this topic with in the past few years (you know who you are) always insisted that “no way that a major network like Facebook will ever use OpenID”. If you were one of those people: admit right now that you were wrong.

It seems to me that this is a result of fact that the social networking landscape is maturing. As part of this maturation process, several open standards are emerging. Identity and authentication are very important topics here and it seems the consensus is increasingly that no single company is going to own all 6-7 billion identities on this planet. So naturally any company with the ambition to potentially separate 6-7 billion individuals from their money for some product or service, will need to either work with multiple identity providers.

So naturally such companies require a standard for doing so. That standard is OpenID. It has no competition. There is no alternative. There are plenty of proprietary APIs that only work with limited sets of identity providers but none like OpenID that can work with all of them.

Similarly, major identity providers like Google, Facebook are stuck at sharing a few hundred million users between them, they shift their attention to somehow involving all those users that didn’t sign up with them. Pretty much all of them are OpenID providers already. Facebook just took the obvious next step in becoming a relying party as well. The economics are mindbogglingly simple: Facebook doesn’t make money from verifying peoples identity but they do make money from people using their services. OpenID relying party means the group of people who can access their services just grew to the entire internet population. Why wouldn’t they want that? Of course this doesn’t mean that world + dog will now be a Facebook user but it does mean that one important obstacle has just disappeared.

BTW. Facebook’s current implementation is not very intuitive. I’ve been able to hook up myopenid to my facebook account but I haven’t actually found a login page where I can login with my openid yet. It seems that this is a work in progress still.

Anyway, this concludes my morning blogging session. Haven’t blogged this much in months. Strange how the prospect of not having to work today is energizing me 🙂

WP-OpenID

I’ve been enthusiastic about openid for a while but have so far not managed to openid enable my site. WP-OpenID, which is the main openid plugin for wordpress is under quite active development. Unfortunately, until recently, any version I tried of that had some issues that prevented me from using it.

The author Will Norris got hired by Vidoop the other day to continue working on wp-openid in the context of the diso project. Diso is another thing I’m pretty enthousiastic about. So, things are improving on the openid front.

Tonight, I managed to get version 2.1.9 of wp-openid to install without any issues on my wordpress 2.5.1 blog. I’ve been testing and it seems to at least accept my openid www.jillesvangurp.com (delegate to myopenid) without issues.

So finally, my blog is openid enabled.

The delegation bit is BTW courtesy of another wordpress plugin: openid delegation. I’ve been using the 0.1 version for more than a year and it just works. Delegation is an openid concept where any website can delegate openid authentication to an external openid provider. This allows you to use a URL you own as your identity and also to switch provider without losing control of your openid url.

Friend Connect

Google announced their friend connect yesterday. It’s part of what is a pretty broad, and in my view really smart, strategy that they have been rolling out over the past few months bit by bit. It all started with open social which is their social network API that allows gadget creators to target any social network able to act as a open social container. By now this includes most relevant social networks except Facebook.

An issue is that open social is still a bit immature and also that compatibility between sites is not that great due to sites introducing all sorts of extensions and cherry picking features to implement, which of course leads to a great variety of circumstances to test for. However, it’s a huge improvement over having just the Facebook API (which is not that old either, or that good).

Then came google app engine, which is a ultra scalable, hassle free environment for creating and hosting simple web applications. Like for example open social gadgets. App engine is a very interesting achievement at least from an architecture and scalability point of view. Whether it will work as advertised remains to be seen of course, too early to tell. Also, it comes with lots of technical restrictions that are going to be not popular with people that have investments in existing, non compatible code.

On the other hand, there’s no way around the fact that most these limitations are more or less required for the type of scalability that Google wants to provide. So, Google App Engine lowers the barrier of entry for small parties to launch their own open social gadgets or full websites. That’s good for Google because inevitably Google ends up being a really attractive advertising partner for people choosing to sell their soul like that choosing to host their products on Google App Engine. And of course, Google gets to monitor site activity and track users which is all very valuable data from advertising point of view. And of course all those nice Google APIs are really easy to access from inside Google’s own platform.

Now yesterday they added friend connect to the mix. Friend connect does several things. First of all, it turns simple web sites into open social containers. Secondly, it comes with a few widgets that add some value to this. The most important of this is what appears to be a social network interconnect that allows for authentication of users against several popular social networks and openid thus relieving the simple website of that task. Basically visitors of a site can sign in with one or more social network credentials. Google handles all the interaction with the backend social networks which includes things such as publishing site activity to your event feed; access to your friend lists on all associated sites and that type of features.

Soon loads of blogs and other websites will start featuring nifty open social gadgets. Think wordpress sidebar widgets on steroids (checkout my frontpage to see a few in action). This will lead to a mass migration of activity from inside social networks to external websites.

I mentioned this was a very smart strategy by Google. What’s going on here? Well Google, unlike most companies relying on advertisement revenue, doesn’t care which websites you visit as long as they feature Google ads or as long as they can somehow track what you are doing. Friends connect vastly increases their ability to do so. It’s effectively as good as users visiting a Google owned site: you sign in; all sorts of complex javascript executes; AJAX calls to Google take place, etc. They might even start pushing ads this way, although I suspect that they are not that stupid (would basically alienate a lot of website maintainers). More logic is that they continue to push ads separately and instead make it more attractive for existing adsense users to also deploy friend connect.

So, Google ads + friends connect is worth billions. It basically turns all connected websites into one huge social network with Google right at the center. Facebook can’t really deliver this value because inevitably users browse to other domains than facebook.com and also because their third party website advertising marketshare is pretty much non existent: all their revenue is inside their walled garden. Same for myspace.com, or linked in.com and most other social networks. Google doesn’t really have this problem. Most of their ads are served up by third party websites anyway and more eyeballs for those means more money for them. Any way you get to see a Google ad is a good one as far as they are concerned.

Google also managed to do some interesting things here. Note that Facebook is featured on friends connect. Apparently Google is just using the public facebook APIs just like any other site. But it should be interesting to learn what’s in it for Facebook (revenue sharing?). Facebook and MySpace are also launching their connnect APIs this week BTW. However, as noted above, they currently lack the advertising solutions to make it work so it is debatable what the added value of that is going to be. It could be that they have to do do some website owner alienation by pushing ads. This is something Google can afford not to do.

Additionally, Google is actually bridging several social networks. Your myspace buddies showing up right next to your facebook buddies is somewhat of a novelty for the web (and the involved social networks). Google doesn’t care where you park your friends, as long as you expose them via Google Connect and interact with them on sites showing nice Google ads.

Very clever.

I have a few worries though. To me friends connect sounds like a rather exclusive club and huge control point. It achieves some of the goals of dataportability.org by basically introducing one big fat central control point. So it’s as open as Google wants/needs it to be. For now they seem to be doing the right way and friends connect being an openid relying party is a great example. But long term I wonder what will happen to the non Google connected web.

Update. It seems Facebook is blocking their, apparently, involuntary inclusion on Google’s friend connect citing terms of use designed to lock in users into their platform. If you are not part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. Or, as Despair.com paraphrases, If you’re not a part of the solution,there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem. I guess, they are afraid of the walls of their garden being torn down and that their estimated value might deflate before they can capitalize on it. Rumor has it Steve Balmer is sitting on a sack of unused money due to a certain deal blowing up in his face recently. And we all know he likes to throw with what he sits on.