Monday, June 2, 2008

Facebook certainly chose a peculiar time to announce the imminent death of a platform (and dare I say, operating system) staple: the installation screen.

In the late afternoon of last Friday, Pete Bratach penned a post called “Streamlining Application Authorization” that went virtually unnoticed by the press at the time, even by Facebook-focused blogs. And when they did finally cover Bratach’s post, they chose to focus on less important matters concerning user metrics.

Was Facebook trying to pull a fast one on us? That wouldn’t be surprising, given the potential of fundamental platform changes to upset a large number of developers. And what it did announce consisted of quite a fundamental change.

Starting July 15 (and perhaps coinciding with the rollout of Facebook’s new site design), users will no longer see an installation screen (see below) when they access an application for the first time. Rather, they will see a new “login” screen that simply asks them whether they want to permit the application access to their information. This simply grants the application temporary access to your data so it can operate, without establishing any real footprint on your Facebook experience.

The new screen has been designed to make application adoption less intimidating for users. They will no longer have to worry about installing (and later uninstalling) applications - and their associated profile boxes, left-hand nav buttons, profile links, and email lists - just to try them out.

But the change should also slow viral growth patterns - especially for newer, smaller apps. Gone is the ability to put profile boxes (which give apps considerable visibility) on users’ pages upon first access. To add a box (on a special apps tab no less), users must later decide that they like it well enough to click on a special canvas page button.

The same goes for email notifications and news feed items larger than one line; users must opt into these through the canvas page as an afterthought. The new design will also forgo app links in the left-hand column (the column is going away in its present form), as well as app links under profile pictures. All in all, these changes mean that applications will struggle to obtain the same visibility and user access that they can instantly achieve now upon installation.

The move to get rid of installations is the latest in a line of decisions meant to clamp down on spammy apps by implementing sweeping changes to the platform, rather than coming down hard on particular wrongdoers. We first covered this trend in August when Facebook moved to stop developers from generating deceptive profile boxes and messages, and then changed the way all applications are measured.

Later, Facebook outed misleading notifications and mini-feed stories, reined in cross-application notifications, and put restrictions on feed stories. More importantly, Facebook began regulating the number of notifications, requests, and emails that apps could send to new users, based on response rates. And this year the company also released a formal platform policy that implemented rule-based limitations in addition to technical ones.

Platform changes meant to reduce spam are great for users but not so great for developers, even the non-spammy ones. After all, platforms by definition are meant to be stable; shake them up and things start to fall apart. Furthermore, just how Facebook has chosen to evolve its platform should give innocent developers pause. As Michael remarked in August, Facebook tends to avoid punishing mischievous developers in any meaningful way. This policy leads to further bad behavior since developers know they won’t be held individually accountable; Facebook will just change the entire platform on them.

And these pending changes only serve to continue that tradition. When installation screens go away mid-July, existing applications will see their access to users grandfathered in. Their profile boxes will be moved over to the new tab, their email lists will retain members, and they will still be able to generate news feed items just as before. Thus, the popular apps that achieved success through spammy means won’t suffer nearly as much as nascent apps that have yet to gain a foothold.

The question going forward, therefore, is this: will Facebook continue perfecting the platform with the goal of preventing all bad behavior with technological measures but no meaningful deterrents? Or will it concede that overly selfish behavior on the part of developers is unstoppable to some extent, and that it’s important to implement a reliable and effective system of punishment?

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