Welcome to the Silicon Valley hype cycle: One year, and you're over. That seems to be the consensus on Facebook's vaunted platform, whose one-year anniversary went largely unremarked. The company itself didn't blog about it until today, and sources tell us an open-bar party Facebook held in Palo Alto was low-key to the point of despair. It can't have helped that Google was throwing a massive party in San Francisco the same day to close out its conference for developers. How different a scene from a year ago, when the F8 launch event of Facebook Platform won comparisons of the company to Microsoft and of founder Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates.
The news, long expected, that Facebook would open-source its platform is not reviving the buzz. And the comparisons people are making now are not as complimentary.
A revamp of how Facebook handles third-party applications is "Orwellian," one observer says, which I suppose makes Zuckerberg Big Little Brother. "We've heard from many users that adding applications is cumbersome," writes Facebook developer Pete Bratach. And yet application-tracker Adonomics reports that Facebook users have installed more than 912 billion applications. The real effect of Facebook's redesign is to make it less likely that Facebook users will install applications their friends use. This may reduce complaints about annoying applications, but it will also slow the spread of applications on Facebook from user to user — an overwhelming part of the Facebook Platform's appeal.
It's sensible for Facebook to do something about its reputation for being all about zombies and pirates. What doesn't make sense is dissembling about the reason it needs to. Facebook's problem isn't that applications aren't popular enough; it's that they've become too popular, and grown out of control. The changes to how applications get added, as well as changes to the design of profile pages which downplay applications, will put more of Facebook's screen real estate back in its control. Why not just say that?
Because Facebook needs to maintain the loyalty of developers, if only for appearance's sake. I've never been convinced that widgets add that much to Facebook in a business sense. But they gave Facebook Valley buzz, which it cleverly, and profitably, capitalized on. Microsoft would never have invested in a mere social network — but start talking about Facebook as a computing platform, and the likes of Bill Gates get interested fast.
Which is why, when Facebook executives get up on stage talking to a Wall Street crowd, as Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg did last week at the D6 conference, they're swift to talk up the work of developers. But on the site itself? They'd just as soon the developers disappear.