What if the Facebook Platform really became a platform?


The word "Zynga" characterizes both the vigor and the speed with which the first generation of Facebook apps entered and exited the public conscience. Usually a company doesn't have to lead the news with headlines about plotting a chart for growth unless its chart, up to now, had been pointing it the other direction.

The fortunes of Zynga and other social game makers depend almost entirely on the platform that supports it. Although there are Zynga games outside of Facebook, it was essentially Facebook that vaulted the company and its virtual farms to prominence.

Both my longtime readers will recall how hard on Facebook I've been in the past. Some folks have said I haven't been fair to Facebook, since I'm not even a member (indeed, I'm one of the six holdouts). A few years back, a reader suggested that I haven't earned the right to complain about having my private data be exploited by anonymous apps on Facebook's platform without my permission (as if I or anyone would check a box saying, "Yes, please exploit my private data, I'm perfectly fine with that") until I've joined the service and become a victim myself.

So here I am in my new digs dealing with communications systems and data platforms, and I finally have an opportunity to wield my mallet at my old, familiar punching bag. And yet I'm not going to take the swing. Yes, settle down, both of you, I'm going to play fair.

A year ago already, Facebook acquired mobile apps platform Parse. At the time, I thought to myself, whoops, there goes another platform, ker-plop. It would be like AOL after acquiring Nullsoft, AOL after acquiring MapQuest, AOL after acquiring MusicNow and CNN after acquiring journalists. I remembered how promising it seemed when Facebook invested in HTML5 development at long last, only for Mark Zuckerberg to publicly trash that decision just months later, well before it would have borne fruit.

When my friend and colleague Al Hilwa, who directs software development research for IDC, wrote me the other day to say there's positive prospects for Parse, at first, I had to clean coffee off my keyboard. Then I thought this over, applying the same logic I used to declare Heroku the best enterprise cloud service of 2011.

Yes, I sometimes use logic, and sometimes it even works. Here's mine: Users don't really care about platforms unless there's something wrong with them. If platforms work, they care about the apps, and that's fine. When Facebook invests in its platform as an identity unto itself, a destination, a portal--that's wasted energy. When apps provide the same features to users as Facebook provides now, and perhaps with better usage models, they'll embrace apps.

Perhaps this once, Facebook actually gets this. Zuckerberg was wrong to trash HTML5 just because he doesn't understand it, the same way Donald Sterling is wrong to trash humans because he doesn't understand them. But Parse could work, theoretically, if it provided a platform for apps to provide their own identities and usefulness and brands without being interrupted by a big, freakin' "f."

Maybe the apps you use on your phone right now run on Heroku. Would you know it? You might, if they acted strangely. But as long as they don't, Heroku's ultimate benefactor, Mark Benioff, is perfectly happy with supplying the resources, engaging the customers and reaping the rewards.

This makes Wednesday's announcement from the Facebook f8 conference quite intriguing indeed: Parse apps will soon be able to run on your phone offline, by way of an offline data store. Keep in mind, Parse is not just a system for growing virtual carrots and pigs in real-time. For example, a service called Chef that enables on-demand scaling of Amazon AWS server capacity for other apps runs on Parse.

If Parse develops to full fruition, just as if Zuckerberg had never heard of it, then conceivably it can extend Facebook's presence in mobile services without the baggage of the social network. It is this heavy, unwieldy, frankly ugly social service that is Facebook's boat anchor. If for once, it has the perseverance and good manners to step aside and let Parse apps do what they do, Zuckerberg would have a grin as big as Benioff's. And I will be the first to hit the "Like" button.