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November 02, 2007

OpenSocial - initial thoughts

Mike Nolan over on the Edge Hill Web Services blog is one of many who have written recently about the OpenSocial API.  See Marc Andreessen's Open Social: a new universe of social applications all over the web for a good overview.

There is no doubt that this is a really interesting development and one that those of us that are interested in developing, using or deploying Facebook-style social applications will need to take note of over the coming months.

Several thoughts occur to me at this stage - note that by 'at this stage' I mean 'before I've actually looked at the spec in any detail! :-)

Firstly, I'm going to ignore the issue of what impact this spec has directly on Facebook - Facebook can look after itself and, as a result, its users (including yours truly) will take decisions about whether to stay with it or go elsewhere.  However, as a very small-scale application developer within Facebook (Second Friends if you are interested) I would like to note one thing...  a Facebook application is a Facebook application because FBML, the markup language used to create applications, enforces a look and feel and a set of application conventions that encourage a reasonably consistent approach to usability across the site as a whole.  My suspicion is that this, albeit fairly superficial, consistency of approach is one of the things that makes Facebook compelling to the end-user.  It'll be interesting to see whether OpenSocial's use of Javascript and HTML will offer a less rigid (i.e. more flexible) framework and, if so, whether that, combined with the demand for developing applications that work inside multiple frameworks, ultimately leads to a less homogeneous overall experience for the end-user.

Secondly, and with more of a focus on what has been happening within the education community over the last decade, I'm interested in what impact the availability of OpenSocial will have on the kinds of containers (to use Marc's terminology) we are more used to dealing with inside institutions - i.e. those offered by VLEs such as Blackboard and Moodle and portals such as uPortal (does anyone still do uPortal BTW!?).  Now, I'm sure someone is going to tell me that those are different kinds of containers!  Maybe so?  But it seems to me that there is potential for seeing some useful convergence here?

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My first thought about Facebook and OpenSocial is whether someone would write a Facebook app that would allow the use of OpenSocial within Facebook - that is said without any detailed knowledge of either, so this maybe all nonsense.

Anyway, on uPortal usage, this is being used by a number of UK HEIs in a commercialised version called 'Luminis' sold by Sungard HE (http://www.sungardhe.com/), as well as a few pure uPortal installations (Hull, Bristol)

uPortal development is supported by JA-SIG, and a wiki with deployments is available (http://www.ja-sig.org/wiki/display/UPC/Deployed+uPortals)

I see definite potential for Universities to implement the OpenSocial container API within our own systems - that for me is the most exciting part of it.

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