MySpace app dev platform still a work in progress

Lags behind Facebook, Twitter due to commitment to standards, lack of visibility

A year after MySpace Inc. launched its developer program, the jury is still out on whether the initiative will be a success.

Officials at struggling MySpace said they are satisfied with program's progress, noting that about 8,000 applications have been built so far. "We're continuing to see great traction," said Gerardo Capiel, the recently hired vice president of product management for the MySpace Open Platform.

However, observers note that external developers have built more than 52,000 applications for rival social network operator Facebook Inc., which launched its platform in May 2007.

MySpace's decision to support a variety of open standards, such as OAuth, OpenID and OpenSocial, has made the process of building the platform "iterative," Capiel said. Developers approve of the process, he added. The OAuth protocol for user authentication, the OpenID user identity framework and the OpenSocial set of common APIs for social networking applications are works in progress.

Gartner Inc. analyst Ray Valdes noted that the decision to support open standards is positive in some ways, but he pointed out that it also ties MySpace to technologies that are still very much in flux. He cited the Google-backed OpenSocial in particular for slowing the progress of the MySpace development platform.

He also noted that MySpace hasn't touted its developer program as much as rival vendors have touted theirs.

"It's partly that MySpace hasn't taken a lot of initiative lately for developers, and also that OpenSocial itself isn't picking up steam, perhaps because it's a group effort and everybody is waiting for someone else to push the cart forward," Valdes said.

The MySpace developer program hasn't generated anywhere near the amount of enthusiasm and activity as the application platform for the Twitter social network or those of Palm Pre, BlackBerry and Android wireless devices, Valdes said.

"I look at the MySpace application platform and I don't see nor hear that kind of conversation among developers or users," Valdes said. "There isn't this notion that there's an opportunity there and that if developers can finish their application this weekend and launch it, they'd get the gold at the end of the rainbow."

In addition, MySpace's popularity among end users has cooled off, while usage booms on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In March 2008, the Fox Interactive Media sites, including MySpace, had 88.3 million U.S. unique visitors, a figure that dropped to 85.1 million last month, according to comScore. In that same time period, Facebook's unique visitors in the U.S. grew from 36 million to 61.2 million. Globally, Facebook sped past MySpace last year. Currently, Facebook claims 200 million users to MySpace's 130 million.

"Partly it's a chicken-and-egg thing. If you get more users using the site, then more developers are interested and [they] build new, interesting applications, which in turn will attract more users," Valdes said. "You get a very positive cycle going. I don't see that happening with MySpace."

The recent management shake-up, in which MySpace's CEO was replaced and its president will apparently get re-assigned to another role, doesn't help build confidence among developers, Valdes said.

Anatoly Lubarsky, founder of x2line, which has built more than 35 applications for MySpace since October, gives the MySpace developer program a mixed review.

On the negative side, the platform is still too shaky technologically for his taste, and MySpace is slow to address the issues that arise, he said.

"Developing for MySpace is tough because the platform is still not stable; it has many issues and bugs which remain unfixed for months," Lubarsky said via e-mail. "In its current state, the platform doesn't give enough confidence to developers."

He considers the Facebook platform, for which x2line has also built applications, much more solid.

However, MySpace has done a better job than Facebook of being stringent in its application approval process, Lubarsky said. In addition, the MySpace audience is more attractive to advertisers than Facebook's because it is larger in the U.S. and because its members are more likely to spend time playing games and decorating their profiles, he said.

For these reasons, MySpace applications offer a very attractive revenue-generating opportunity for developers, he said. "The audience is the main asset of MySpace," he said. "[And] MySpace isn't as saturated as Facebook with apps and [it] has higher-quality applications."

"Hopefully, MySpace would overcome obstacles and the platform evolves," he added.

Capiel said he hasn't heard many complaints about platform technical issues in his discussions with developers. "If I'd been at this job six months ago, I would have gotten more questions from developers about the stability of the platform," he said.

Capiel, who has a B.S. from MIT and an MBA from Stanford, has been on the other side. Before taking the MySpace job, he founded Gydget, which developed a social marketing application deployed at MySpace and other sites.

"We're pretty careful and methodical about how we implement changes to the site, so our developers probably sleep better at night instead of worrying that we're going to massively change our site from one day to the other," Capiel said.

So far, the platform has been a hit with games developers, which makes sense considering that MySpace is a social network heavily focused on music, photos, videos and entertainment in general, Capiel said.

Capiel also highlights the platform's support for Flash and Silverlight tools, the ability for developers to profit not only from advertising but also from sales of virtual goods, and MySpace's decision to maintain applications on profile home pages, unlike Facebook, which moved them to a separate tab.

"Thanks to all those things, developers on our platform are getting very good ARPU [average revenue per user], so they have a pretty viable business model for applications, which means they can continue to invest in growing their applications both in terms of user base and capabilities," Capiel said.

MySpace also plans to continue to extend the mechanisms for developers to communicate with end-users and engage them with their applications, an area in which he acknowledges the company erred on the conservative side at the beginning.

"When we came out with the platform, we held back a lot of functionality around that. We wanted to see how things were going to develop," he said. "The key thing is, the user will be in control of the type and amount of communication that comes to them."

For example, MySpace recently began testing a notification feature that lets developers generate custom messages from their applications.

In the coming 12 to 18 months, Capiel expects MySpace to continue to build tools specifically for its core audience of game developers, as well as to attract other types of programmers.

"We want little developers to have the capability to become big companies themselves. I'm paying a lot of attention at who's successful in our platform from business and from user acquisition standpoints," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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