Facebook – a leading portal to the web but not the only one

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Everyone is talking about Facebook at the moment from Ben Holmes and I chatting over lunch last week about whether it might become a $10bn company to Fred Wilson’s Open Facebook post on Sunday – naturally that has got me thinking, and nine times out of ten when that happens my two cents worth end up on this blog. So here we go.

To set the scene: Facebook has been taking London by storm recently and I’ve gotten caught up in that wave. It has become the social network I have got the most out of and I haven’t really scratched the surface yet – although that says as much about me as about anything else. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that has made the difference with Facebook, but a large part of it is that more of my friends and colleagues have congregated here than anywhere else.

So I like Facebook a lot, enough to think seriously about whether Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook can realise his dream and make Facebook the “OS of the internet”.

The fact that for many people Facebook is the first place they go when they turn on their computer gives him half a chance. That is a bit like Windows after all. Time will tell, but I suspect it also has a stickiness that is a bit OS like. Status updates and the mini-feeds make it impossible to move unless you take your whole network with you, and given that Facebook has an older crowd the networks are likely to be diverse enough to make that difficult. The way they have opened themselves up to third party apps via an API is also a bit OS like – those apps have to be written to Facebook for people to be able to add them to their profiles. This contrasts with Myspace and most other social nets where users customise their profiles by adding HTML to their page – so in theory the same code should run on any social net.

All of this goes some way to explaining why everyone is so excited about Facebook and why they turned down rumoured $1bn+ offers for the company last year – but I don’t see the natural monopoly and lock out of other systems that being an OS implies.

For starters there are still a lot of things that you can’t do through Facebook – writing this blog and reading other people’s blogs are my two leading activities on the web and up to now you can’t do either of those through Facebook. That could change quite easily I suppose – I quite often use a Firefox plugin called Scribefire to write posts which they could incorporate and I’m sure they could do something similar for the more popular RSS readers (either via the Facebook API or by doing something similar themselves).

More problematic is search – it is difficult to see Facebook owning that – for sure they could do a deal with Google (like Myspace did), but it is hard to see them being anything other than the junior partner in that.

Similarly, there is the vast bulk of other things people do on the web. Almost by definition I don’t think Facebook can aspire to be an OS to the internet when the bulk of internet activity happens without even acknowledging it exists. Nothing happens on my PC without going through Windows – plenty will always happen for me on the web without going through Facebook.

Finally social networks are not natural monopolies in the way that operating systems are. All of us are on multiple social networks, choosing which we use depending on our purpose. The first generation of social networks are all horizontal plays, but I have been saying for some time now that the next generation are going to be focused around interest areas – for example our portfolio company WAYN is a social net for people interested in travel – so you can see how people will use WAYN or Facebook at different times depending on what they are trying to achieve. In the long run you can see the market consolidating and this situation changing, but I can’t see that happening too quickly.

So, as I say in the title to this post, Facebook can be a leading portal to the web, but it is hard to see them becoming the only one.

  • Nic,

    I don’t think Facebook is a “Internet OS” or “Social OS” as Liz Gannes wrote. It overlooks the really important aspect of Facebook of communications. It is this aspect of Facebook that excites me with the possibilities. From my perspective communications will always win over content. Consider how many people use IM/Email versus reads a blog or watches any particular movie.

    I see Facebook as a social communications platform. Even without having to continually email/txt/IM you stay in contact with your friends simply by the use of the service. It is like being in a huge room with all your friends. You may be talking and doing something with specific people but you can still keep an eye on what your other friends are doing.

    Facebook’s strength lies in how it allows you to manage and stay in contact with your friends. The more firmly Facebook promotes the strength of this communication through new tools and other controls will only strengthen Facebook. Integrating communications methods such as IM and SMS more firmly into the platform will only strengthen the usage of the platform. In fact I could easily see Facebook becoming a pre-eminent presence service as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bright spark wrote an agent based on the Facebook platform that allows you to control and route all your communications.

    Simon

    Another way to look at it is WAYN could build the travel specific aspects of their specific niche social network around the social communication features of Facebook.

  • Nic,

    I don’t think Facebook is a “Internet OS” or “Social OS” as Liz Gannes wrote. It overlooks the really important aspect of Facebook of communications. It is this aspect of Facebook that excites me with the possibilities. From my perspective communications will always win over content. Consider how many people use IM/Email versus reads a blog or watches any particular movie.

    I see Facebook as a social communications platform. Even without having to continually email/txt/IM you stay in contact with your friends simply by the use of the service. It is like being in a huge room with all your friends. You may be talking and doing something with specific people but you can still keep an eye on what your other friends are doing.

    Facebook’s strength lies in how it allows you to manage and stay in contact with your friends. The more firmly Facebook promotes the strength of this communication through new tools and other controls will only strengthen Facebook. Integrating communications methods such as IM and SMS more firmly into the platform will only strengthen the usage of the platform. In fact I could easily see Facebook becoming a pre-eminent presence service as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bright spark wrote an agent based on the Facebook platform that allows you to control and route all your communications.

    Simon

    Another way to look at it is WAYN could build the travel specific aspects of their specific niche social network around the social communication features of Facebook.

  • I will say it’s a two dollars view (10x) !

    I think nic is right on the fact that facebook could not be an OS. they surely are building a great plateform (which will, by the way, benefit mainly the us industry)

    Facebook will be one channel for distribution, that’s for sure (distribution matters and Nic will agree on that one) but I am the only one in my freinds listening to contemporary music. I need last.fm or U-lik to find partners for it. It’s the same thing with photography, i don’t want to talk about camera but about the work of Goldworthy.
    http://club.u-lik.com/Andy+Goldsworthy

  • I will say it’s a two dollars view (10x) !

    I think nic is right on the fact that facebook could not be an OS. they surely are building a great plateform (which will, by the way, benefit mainly the us industry)

    Facebook will be one channel for distribution, that’s for sure (distribution matters and Nic will agree on that one) but I am the only one in my freinds listening to contemporary music. I need last.fm or U-lik to find partners for it. It’s the same thing with photography, i don’t want to talk about camera but about the work of Goldworthy.
    http://club.u-lik.com/Andy+Goldsworthy

  • nic

    Thanks guys.

    Simon – couldn’t agree with you more, comms are definitely the most important app and they are where Facebook is strong. That is only one aspect of the web though. I am also wondering now how it will all scale – status updates on all my friends might be too much. A bit like the twitter problem.

    Raphael – the question for companies such as U-Lik and Last.fm is the extent to which they start to live totally inside apps like Facebook. Do you think?

  • nic

    Thanks guys.

    Simon – couldn’t agree with you more, comms are definitely the most important app and they are where Facebook is strong. That is only one aspect of the web though. I am also wondering now how it will all scale – status updates on all my friends might be too much. A bit like the twitter problem.

    Raphael – the question for companies such as U-Lik and Last.fm is the extent to which they start to live totally inside apps like Facebook. Do you think?

  • I see communications lying at the heart of most if not all that is done on the web. Particularly around social communications.

    Scaling (of people’s networks) is interesting problem. I’ve notice they already have included the ability to exclude people from your news feed. I think they need to extend that to allow you to specify the “friendiness” of a connection e.g. is this a close friend, acquaintance, business contact, colleague.

  • I see communications lying at the heart of most if not all that is done on the web. Particularly around social communications.

    Scaling (of people’s networks) is interesting problem. I’ve notice they already have included the ability to exclude people from your news feed. I think they need to extend that to allow you to specify the “friendiness” of a connection e.g. is this a close friend, acquaintance, business contact, colleague.

  • Facebook the OS of the Internet…it would be funny if it wasn’t probably meant seriously! User base c 20m (thats registered, not regulars). In the 1999 “Portal Wars” the same stuff was trotted out by each Portal.

    Facebook – along with all the other general purpose SocNets – are just a new version of Yahoo Groups etc with more bling and pictures. They are a part of the broadband ‘Net, but we all do a lot more with the ‘Net than just this.

  • Facebook the OS of the Internet…it would be funny if it wasn’t probably meant seriously! User base c 20m (thats registered, not regulars). In the 1999 “Portal Wars” the same stuff was trotted out by each Portal.

    Facebook – along with all the other general purpose SocNets – are just a new version of Yahoo Groups etc with more bling and pictures. They are a part of the broadband ‘Net, but we all do a lot more with the ‘Net than just this.