Facebook Application Developers Face a Moving Target
For developers thinking about creating social networking applications, the Zynga Game Network seems like an enticing business model. The New York Times called Zynga “the hottest start-up to emerge from Silicon Valley since Twitter and, before that, Facebook.” Inside Network, a research firm that tracks “social gaming” on the Facebook platform and elsewhere, projects that Zynga will earn up to $500 million in revenue this year. The Web site All Facebook, which lists the top 10 Facebook applications, lists three Zynga titles in positions one, two and three: FarmVille, FrontierVille, and TexasHoldEm Poker. Three other Zynga titles also made the list: Mafia Wars, Cafe World, and Treasure Isle..
But for aspiring developers, Zynga’s success may actually tell a story of a different kind: the opportunities that Zynga’s founder, Mark Pincus, seized in 2007 have so changed that his pathway to success can no longer be followed. Of course, change is a constant in the software business. What’s different here is how fast conditions can shift in a “walled garden” environment, and how much those changes are at the whim of a single company. By comparison, the Web itself--with its deliberative standards organizations--changes at a snail’s pace. With 500 million users and counting, Facebook is a vast walled garden, indeed. When the world’s largest social network makes even seemingly minor changes, the consequences, and outcry, can be loud. (Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on this article. A spokeswoman for Zynga declined a request for an interview.)
Zynga’s rise was meteoric. Pincus, who named Zynga after his bulldog, launched Texas Hold’em Poker on Facebook in September 2007, Mafia Wars in June 2008, and its blockbuster title, FarmVille, in June 2009. Investors have taken note. In December 2009, the Russian firm Digital Sky Technology and other investors purchased about $180 million in Zynga securities. Last July, SoftBank added $150 million. The New York Times estimates the company to be worth $4.5 billion, noting that Zynga attracted 100 million users in just two and a half year. Facebook needed four years to do the same.
In May, after rumors that Zynga might part company with Facebook and create a network of its own, the two companies signed a five-year strategic relationship. The move by Zynga to create its own walled garden may have just been rumor, but the impulse is understandable--because Zynga itself is not exempt from changes on Facebook. When the social network moved to a news-feed model, Zynga’s real-time updates became an annoyance. It’s one thing to see at a glance what your friends are up, quite another to see a slew of updates automatically posted by a game application. For Zynga, having a presence on the Facebook feed was a publicity machine. For many users, those endless reports amounted to spam.
In true Facebook fashion, an anti-Zynga group appeared on the site: “I don’t care about your farm, or your mafia, or your fish, or your cafe!” page has attracted just 4,000 members, but reflects broader user sentiment. In response, Facebook began filtering application-generated messages and Zynga’s monthly user count fell off. FarmVille, for example, dropped by 25 percent between March and July, according to AppData.com, which nevertheless still estimates that Zynga has more than four times the monthly active users of its nearest competitor, Electronic Arts--231 million versus 54 million.
In other words, Zynga’s traffic may have dipped, but the company’s titles are doing just fine. But for smaller developers who want to publicize their games, adapting to Facebook’s platform changes can be more difficult. “Facebook started with a completely open platform, but has made it increasingly more and more restrictive,” said Nick O’Neill, founder of All Facebook, which, as the Web site’s name suggests, tracks all things related to the social network, including technology changes affecting developers “This is an ongoing trend; it didn’t suddenly happen in the past three months. Facebook has continuously ratcheted down a lot of the communications channels for developers.”
The rules of the Facebook game have changed not only for communication, for application development. “If you build an application, you need to constantly update it,” O’Neill said. “Most development platforms are backwards-compatible, and Facebook at least tries to do that. But the reality is some Facebook changes are ‘breaking changes’--that is, if you don’t update your application to accommodate the change, it will break. This has been the case since early on. I even experienced it when building one of the early applications. It’s just business on Facebook. As a developer of a Facebook application, that’s what you have accept.”
- A moving target
An August 2009 blog posting by Ethan Beard, Facebook director of business development, announced a roadmap to give developers a sense of what was coming. Under the section “Improved application discovery and engagement,” Beard wrote that user’s favorite apps would be featured on their home page, as well as on the application’s own Facebook page, “with a format that increases brand association with users.” But there would also be what Beard described as short-term changes that include focusing profile integration on application tabs, as well as removing profile boxes, the info section of boxes, and the Boxes tab. On the other hand, “an all-new Apps Dashboard and Games Dashboard will ensure users can easily find and return to their favorite apps and discover new ones; the Games Dashboard will be a dedicated place for users to interact with games and will provide an additional communication channel, called ‘News,’ where you can personalize text updates for users.”
All of this and more has pretty much come to pass. The Games Dashboard lists your friends’ games, as well as featured games on the site. The Application Dashboard does the same for more general applications. But the single most above-the-radar change affecting developers was the removal of the application profile boxes from users’ profile page.
Why remove them? Many observers saw the redesign as part of Facebook’s evolution from a place where people visit each other’s profile page to one where they read the news feed. The former favors fixed information; the latter, as the term “feed” suggests, is more dynamic. “One of the upshots of this change is that more emphasis is placed on real-time content, because content won't stick around as long on your profile page without boxes,” wrote Richard MacManus, on the website ReadWriteWeb. “Your review of a book becomes a part of your news feed for a day or two, then slips off your profile page forever. Whereas with a box, it could stick around for weeks and even months.”
On Inside Facebook, Justin Smith noted that back in 2007 when the Facebook platform first opened, “profile boxes became an extremely powerful way for applications to spread ‘virally.’” He wrote that developers had considerable latitude in how they placed the box: at the right side of the page in a wide format, or to the left in a narrow format. Since then, Facebook removed the former and limited the height of the latter, then encouraged developers “to publish News Feed items and install tabs for their applications.” The result limited “distribution for many apps that were primarily designed to be viral profile widgets.” Smith speculated that Facebook came to view profile boxes as consuming too much profile real estate, thereby becoming “a danger for the long term growth of the service.”
But Nick O’Neill argues that the elimination of the application box was not the biggest loss for developers. He thinks that the more fundamental change came earlier. “It used to be that developers could enable users to publish custom content from within their friends' walls. Say you wanted to share a song with a friend: you could publish that song to their feed. This was user-generated content where applications provided additional value. That’s no longer possible, and I think that has had more impact for a lot of developers.”
O’Neill does not argue that these changes are arbitrary or that the door to new applications is closed. Too many developers, he says, have clogged legitimate Facebook communication channels with what amounts to spam. “Facebook wants to make the platform so that developers are adding value to the overall user experience. If you’re spamming people, you’re not adding value. On the other hand, if you’re creating tools that help people build additional things--a shopping cart, for example--I’ve seen those spread by word-of-mouth. There are certainly businesses that have grown organically through these more informal channels. So Facebook is not dead for developers. But it is a different environment, and the rules have changed.”
Among the developers who are alive and thriving on Facebook despite the twists and turns is game developer RockYou, which ranks number 6 on All Facebook’s list of top Facebook developers. RockYou was founded in 2005 by Lance Tokuda, CEO, and Jia Shen, who now heads Tokyo-based based RockYou Asia. Like Zynga, RockBank is funded in part by Softbank. “Facebook has made a number of changes to the platform since late 2009 with the intent of providing users with a better experience,” wrote Sandy Diep, RockYou’s senior vice president for advertising products and marketing, in an email exchange “Many of these changes significantly affected the way RockYou games communicate with our user base, but we've always worked closely with Facebook’s team to anticipate those changes and adapt to them.”
Diep thinks that recent changes to the Facebook platform have actually helped new developers, including some changes that others see as detrimental. Facebook’s changes to the bookmarks, for example, “allows users to more easily access their most recent games. This is really important to smaller developers, who may not have the advertising power of Zynga or Playfish to purchase Facebook engagement ads--or even RockYou ads--to re-engage users.” But RockYou doesn’t rely just on advertising. To get out the word on its games, RockYou encourages users to publish their feed stories, a more personal alternative to earlier practice of the games posting those stories automatically. RockYou has also made clever use of Facebook’s virtual gifts. Zoo World, for example, offers limited edition gifts that are only available from a friend, not by purchase, thereby encouraging friends to send gift requests.
Of course, RockYou, like Zynga, had an early start on Facebook and now enjoys some marketing momentum. But Diep cites the success of smaller companies, as well. “We've also seen a lot of independent developers continue to innovate on the platform. For example, Baking Life, a game put out by a 10-person studio ZipZapPlay, has a great execution in their game where they reward users with a double quantity of baked items from the user's shop as a reward for posting a feed story. The user's friends can also claim these goodies for their own Baking Life bakeries by clicking on the feed stories.”
Ultimately, she writes, Facebook will continue to attract developers despite all the changes, not just because of the site’s massive user base, but “because has proven to be among the best at creating a scalable platform to acquire and monetize users.”
- Developer books frozen in time
As I was researching this story, I noticed something peculiar on Amazon.com. The retail site offers plenty of English language books on Facebook application development. But almost none of them have been updated since 2008.
“The reason why people have a hard time updating their book it that it's so difficult to keep up,” said John Maver, who with Cappy Popp, co-authored the book Essential Facebook Development: Build Successful Applications for the Facebook Platform (Addison Wesley Developer’s Library). Published in November 2009, the book still represents the latest sustained word on the subject. “I wrote three chapters last week that centered around application tabs, and at the end of the week, Facebook announced they were eliminating them from user profiles. You can’t just write a book on Facebook application development--you have to keep rewriting it over and over again. You’re always hoping you can get your book out before the next big wave of change makes what you’ve written obsolete.”
Those changes include Facebook’s new Graph API, as well as the site steering new developers away from the Facebook Markup Library, suggesting instead they implement their application with HTML iframe elements. “Those are big platform changes,” Maver said. “If your book is based on those technologies and they change it, you have to rewrite everything. So there’s a disincentive to write very detailed books--unless you’re very quick.”
Cappy Popp said that periodically, Facebook has changed a major communication channel on the platform, and in so doing, changed the rules of the game. “There have been four to five different ways to become successful, and Facebook has changed every one of those ways. Now the site appears be encouraging a more business-focused approach, which will make it more difficult for individual developers to get their applications noticed without a massive investment, as Zynga has done, or without some type of interaction that will spread virally without using Facebook itself as the channel.”
“Applications no longer have much visible presence unless you go to the application itself,” said Maver. The result is that Facebook is moving from a viable platform for a wide variety of developers to one centered on a smaller number of large developers. The approach is the polar opposite taken by Apple with iOS and the Open Handset Alliance with Android, where the goal seems to be to amass as many apps as possible. Facebook, Maver says, now focuses on companies with a proven ability to deliver quality, popular applications, but is effectively discouraging smaller vendors from entering the fray.
“Even Microsoft gave you 6 to 12 months between SDK updates, which are generally minor, and 4 years between their operating updates,” said Popp. “With Facebook, the intervals are significantly shorter. You are trying to monetize a set of applications that depend upon ever-changing technology. If you are not a large company it is difficult to weather the storm.”
“While Facebook still professes to have an open, equal platform, there’s little support for developers and the documentation is in flux,” Maver said. “The developer blog, which is frequently updated, is still not supported to the level that the platform requires. When they do post on the blog, they’re good posts. And they do have new documentation, but the problem is that it’s really sparse.”
To be sure, Maver and Popp are not suggesting that would-be developers ignore Facebook. “It’s a hugely popular platform, but you have to understand the new unwritten rules,” Maver says. “Great applications will still succeed, as will applications that spam just enough to attract an audience before Facebook shuts down the channel.” But for most developers, attracting users will have to be done not virally, but by investing in advertising: on Facebook, off Facebook, or both.
Of course, developers might look beyond Facebook to other social networks--at least in theory. “Smaller social networks should offer more opportunities because there are fewer applications to compete with,” said Maver. “If I thought I had identified an up-and-coming social network, I would look at what was successful on Facebook and move in that direction. Unfortunately, most of the other social networks aren’t doing as well--or they don’t have open platforms.” Maver and Popp said that on some social network platforms, parts of the API do not work as advertised. In other cases, the approval process to qualify as a developer is difficult. By contrast, says Maver, “Facebook has done a good job of building their platform on the latest standards and releasing open source tools that build upon those. If you are a Web developer, developing on Facebook--aside from the changes--has actually gotten easier.”
“With iframe support,” said Popp, “Facebook is allowing developers a lot more control, including the ability to run the actual application on your own platform, rather than on Facebook’s servers. This suits Facebook, as well--they were spending a fortune on data centers to deal with all this traffic. A lot of Web applications were not developed for Facebook, but in a form that can be widgitized and for different platforms. In the past, Facebook did not play well with that model. Now, it does.”
“There are opportunities for longer tail apps,” said Maver, referring to more specialized applications developed for a smaller audience. “But there are not as many opportunities to make money because there are no paid applications on Facebook. Instead, I think we’re going to see more applications built around large interactive games, as well as applications where there is a free version and a fee-based premium version. Those opportunities are still wide open.”
Maver and Popp themselves developed a game on behalf of a client company that shows where the business of Facebook apps might be headed. The company wanted to build brand awareness, so the developers created a game to attract interest. "We knew this wasn’t a game you’d be playing for the next 100 years―you’d try it maybe three or four times, then share it with a friend, and that was it.”
Sidebar: Some Facebook Apps Still Go Viral
“Where did some of my profile information go?”
That frequently asked question appeared on Facebook Info tabs after the service eliminated the long-standing boxes where members wrote descriptions about themselves. The proposed replacement: links to other Facebook pages that reflect a member’s interests.
The redesign did not exactly please everyone. Enter Owen Mundy, an artist and instructor at Florida State University, currently on research leave in Berlin. Mundy works in several media: photography, sculpture, video and--most relevant here--computer data. He was working on a project to visualize Facebook friends data, when he realized he could pull profile information from the site. So in December 2009, he wrote an app to do just that.
The application, “Give Me My Data,” is available for free--though Mundy accepts donations. On his site, he describes the app as giving users the ability to export their data for any purpose they see fit: making artwork, archiving an account or, of course, circumventing the Facebook interface. Data can be exported in CSV, XML, SQL, TXT and a few other formats. When we spoke in late summer, he was working on version 2.
As Give Me My Data went viral, it attracted the attention of Riva Richmond, who contributes to the New York Times’ “Gadgetwise” blog on personal technology. “People who are in despair about Facebook’s recent removal of personal information from their profiles can dry their tears,” she wrote. “There’s an app to get it back.”
At that mention, Mundy saw the traffic to givememydata.com go “through the roof. I had surgery that week, and my wife had told me we were pregnant. As the traffic started to subside a wee bit we were talking about how I’d be rich now if that was an iPhone app. So I put a donate button on the site, and one person gave me $10. That was it.”
In its own way, Give Me My Data is itself a piece computer art in that it raises issues about the nature of Facebook and data privacy. Indeed, a few people posted concerns that the app itself was invading user privacy. That raises questions about the nature of APIs and the power that software developers sometimes have in reaching beyond the normal confines of a user interface.
“It’s not just Facebook, it’s the current state of the Web,” Mundy says. “Ten years ago, this would be impossible because you didn’t have access to enormous amounts of data via APIs.” In Facebook’s case especially, this data access via API isn’t accidental--it’s a strategic business decision that now allows people to log into other sites with their Facebook account. By allowing other Web sites to access user data, Facebook has become a gatekeeper. “That’s why they created the API.”