Earlier this week, Facebook announced the fbFund, which will provide grants to companies and individuals interested in building applications for the social-networking website. (See “Facebook Funds Developers.”) The move seems intended to encourage programmers to make applications that are more sophisticated than the bulk of what’s already been created by third-party developers. Some companies could find themselves scrambling to roll with the new order.
When Facebook launched Platform, a system designed to let programmers create applications for users of Facebook, the market was glutted with quick, simple applications built to grow. For example, Extended Info, an application that expanded Facebook users’ ability to list information about themselves, won the Red Bull Flight Experience Award in July for garnering the most users in the month after Platform launched. “My application is simply an upgraded, obvious feature that was only successful because Facebook, for whatever reason, chose not to do it themselves,” says Trey Philips, the developer of Extended Info. Facebook continues to offer its own apps as well, but Philips points out that any move the company makes will likely compete with a third-party application.
Philips recently set off a buzz in the blogosphere when he discovered hints in Facebook’s API that seem to suggest that the company plans to add a function that could allow users to customize their lists of friends. If added, the function could directly compete with Slide’s Top Friends application, which has more than 15 million installed users on Facebook, according to Adonomics, a site that tracks Facebook application statistics. (A Facebook spokesperson says that the company does not comment on future product plans and declined to be interviewed for this story.) Philips notes that Facebook can only avoid competing with its developers by coming up with truly unique ideas or by limiting itself to releasing an application, such as one for chat within Facebook, that uses the site in ways that developers can’t.
Facebook has already added functions that enhance its wall–a bulletin board on a user’s profile page–in ways similar to enhancements made by applications such as RockYou’s Super Wall. “It’s totally within Facebook’s power to go out and expand their scope into the territory of [other] platform developers,” RockYou CTO and cofounder Jia Shen says. “It’s not like I’ve received a message [stating that] they’re specifically gunning for our application. I think they’re taking a lot of pointers from our applications.” Shen says that RockYou has kept Super Wall popular by continuing to add functions beyond those provided by Facebook, such as the ability to leave graffiti-style messages on Super Wall.
Jesse Farmer, who created Adonomics, says that developers shouldn’t be surprised if they collide with Facebook. Applications that piggyback on existing features are naturally at risk of becoming irrelevant, he says. Of deeper concern to developers, he believes, is Facebook’s recent change to its metrics, implemented at the end of August, which he thinks suggests the direction the company wants application developers to take. “This last metrics change made them all a little nervous,” Farmer says.