The real roadblocks to data portability on social networks

I see that Yahoo has joined up with Google’s Open Social. That’s cool because it will let developers build gadgets, widgets, social networking applications, or whatever we’re calling these things that are like Facebook apps, twice, instead of dozens of times. Once for Facebook and once for everyone else. That’s really great, because it’ll encourage developers to build a bunch of new stuff and get the promise of a lot of reach. At least once the platform is done and it all works as advertised (devs tell me it’s not there yet, but coming along).

But I, and many of my friends, care much more about true data portability. Here’s a few things we want to do:

1. Many of us are on more than a dozen social networks. I’m on Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Orkut,, FriendFeed, SocialThing, Profilactic,, Twitter, Pownce,, Disqus, and many more. You didn’t think each of those is a social network, did you? They are. The problem? Well, this year I wanted to change my email from to Doing just that simple action is a pain in the behind. If we had true dataportability we’d just change it in one place and the change would ripple through all other social networks.

2. When a Facebook user friends you and gives you his/her email address it’d be nice to have that automatically placed into your favorite email client so you could actually use it without having to type it in again.

3. When a new social network comes along (say your company turns one on this morning) I’d love it if it noticed that 15 of my friends who join up there are also on Twitter, etc. Why is that important? Because if there were some way to bind these social networks together they could do a lot more for you. For instance, I know that Scott Beale is on almost all of my social networks listed above. Why don’t the systems know that? If they did, we wouldn’t have a need for FriendFeed, or Profilactic, or SocialThing (those systems are attempting to glue all those social networks together).

So, what’s the problem, beyond the politics of some of this stuff (will Facebook join the Who cares? Has the actually shipped anything yet beyond PR?)


It’s not easy to do any of this stuff. On Saturday I talked with Dave Morin, head of Facebook’s application platform.

He brought up use case after use case that I hadn’t really thought through.

For instance, what if a user wants to delete his or her info off of Facebook. Today that’s possible. But what about in a really data portable world? After all, in such a world Facebook might have sprayed your email and other data to other social networks. What if those other social networks don’t want to delete your data after you asked Facebook to?

Another case? How do you define spam? Based on my experiences lately lots of people define it differently. I don’t mind “noisy” systems, but some people really are bothered by that. So, if you’re over on Facebook and you give friends your email address and then that opens you up to “noisy” systems, how do you feel about Facebook?

Another case: you want your closest Facebook friends to know your birthday, but not everyone else. How do you make your social network data portable, but make sure that your privacy is secured?

Another case? Which of your data is yours? Which belongs to your friends? And, which belongs to the social network itself? For instance, we can say that my photos that I put on Facebook are mine and that they should also be shared with, say, Flickr or SmugMug, right? How about the comments under those photos? The tags? The privacy data that was entered about them? The voting data? And other stuff that other users might have put onto those photos? Is all of that stuff supposed to be portable? (I’d argue no, cause how would a comment left by a Facebook user on Facebook be good on Flickr?) So, if you argue no, where is the line? And, even if we can all agree on where the line is, how do we get both Facebook and Flickr to build the APIs needed to make that happen?

Another case? You go to Flickr. Change your email address. Then you go to Facebook and change your email address to a different one. Now you head over to Twitter and change it again to yet a third one. Which one is correct? How do these systems, not owned by the same companies, figure this out? Time stamp? What if you actually want the systems to use three separate email addresses?

And we went on and on.

So, the story is, doing the simplest of data portability (for instance, making all systems understand when I changed my email address) is going to take a lot of work and a lot of cooperation between all of the players). Doing the toughest stuff (like sharing of some of the social graph, or making things like photos and videos portable) will take a lot longer.

I’d be surprised if we see some real movement on data portability between a good number of systems by the end of the year.

Do you expect any better?


Google’s five-year plan to hit Enterprise continues (Cemaphore helps Google out)

I’m convinced that Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has a five-year plan to put Google’s foot inside the enterprise door.

Enterprise users aren’t easy to switch over. On the plane to New York I saw a guy using Windows 2000 with an older version of Lotus Notes. I felt sorry for the guy. But his usage is typical of those in many enterprises. CTOs don’t like to invest in new stuff when the old stuff is working just fine.

So, you try being a Google salesperson and trying to get the CTO to rip out old stuff (er, Microsoft Office and all of Microsoft’s servers like Sharepoint and Exchange) and switch to your newer stuff (like Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets, Gmail, and Google Calendar).

I’m going through that move myself and I can tell you it isn’t easy. And I’m one guy who can make up my own mind. Imagine the momentum a big company with, say, 100,000 seats has to go through. Next time you’re at Hertz rental car you can see that momentum in action: they are still using a character-mode app on their front line machines.

But the early adopters have already moved. When I ask audiences what they are using now, I see more and more Google customers.

I can’t think of a situation where the enterprise didn’t eventually follow the early adopter crowd. It might have taken years, but they do follow eventually.

Today we are seeing new signs of life in Google’s strategy and the help didn’t come from within Google itself.

It comes from a small company named Cemaphore. They just announced “MailShadow for Google Apps.”

What does it do? It synchronizes email and calendar items between Microsoft Outlook and Exchange and Gmail/Google Calendar.

Sounds really boring, right? Hey, didn’t Google just ship its own synchronizer?

Yes, and yes.

But Google’s synchronizer sucks compared to Cemaphore’s. It’s slow and buggy. Earlier in the week I got a demo of Cemaphore’s new offering from Tyrone Pike, Cemaphore’s CEO and President.

I saw that, thanks to Cemaphore, when I enter a calendar item in Microsoft Outlook it instantly appeared in Google Calendar.

He repeated the demo with reading and sending email from both Exchange and Gmail. Again, synched within seconds.

My own tests with Google’s sync technology showed that items wouldn’t sync for hours, and sometimes, never, if you screwed up and loaded two separate synching products like I did.

So, why is this important?

Because it lets Enterprises slowly introduce Google’s Enterprise products in.

Enterprises will never move wholesale over to Gmail and Google’s other offerings. Users just don’t like that kind of change. There would be revolt at work, if CTOs tried to force it. But this way a CTO can let his/her employees use whatever systems they want and still have them synchronized. And there ARE major reasons to move to Gmail: Cost, for one. I also am hearing that Gmail’s email servers use far less electricity per mail than Exchange’s do. Environmentalism anyone? You think that’s not important for CTOs? It sure is. Both are going to be major drivers that will get Google’s offerings paid attention to.

Anyway, I’m hearing rumblings that Google will follow this announcement up with several of its own over the next couple of months.

It’ll be interesting to see what CTOs think of this and it’ll be interesting to see if it does, indeed, take five years for Google to make major inroads into the Enterprise like I think it will.

What do you think?