Yahoo: Open to disaster

Yahoo, take a cue from Apple before subjecting users to the privacy perils of open social-networking development

It seems Google isn't the only company borrowing a page from Steve Ballmer's playbook. Yahoo CTO Ari Balogh took the stage at last week's Web 2.0 Expo to announce that his company, too, is mounting a major push for third-party developers. Calling it the Yahoo Open Strategy, Balogh said its goal is nothing less than to transform Yahoo from a portal to a bona fide social network.

Is there a draft in here?

Don't think Facebook; that's small potatoes. According to a post on the Yahoo Developer Network blog, the new platform will start small but will "take a proactive approach to tapping into the ten billion aggregate relationships in Mail, Messenger, Address Book, and other social areas of Yahoo to recommend connections to our users. Plus, we'll begin surfacing users' profile and connection information throughout Yahoo as the whole Yahoo network becomes more social, which will motivate users to activate connections."

OK, maybe you should think Facebook. That is, I can't help but think about how this stuff seems to turn out whenever Facebook tries it.

The issue that arose last November, when Facebook unilaterally began broadcasting its users' online buying habits, wasn't even the first such case. In 2006, the company ran into hot water for providing Facebook subscribers with easy-access stalking tools for all their online connections. The following year, it had to tighten restrictions on its own developer APIs when its site became a haven for spammers. More than twice bitten, today's Facebook is much shier about anything as ambitious as what Yahoo has planned.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for opening up online services to third party developers. But in any group of third party developers, there will always be a certain number of bad actors. Often, they won't even realize who they are, because let's face it -- Web developers are hackers. We live in a world of emerging technologies, obsessed with innovation. If you give a group of Web developers an API, some of us will always figure out how to make it do something you never intended it to do, because that's the job description.

That's why, for what Yahoo has planned, "treading lightly" isn't enough. Instead, I propose that it take its cues from Apple.

In 1984, Apple unveiled a remarkable new computer called the Macintosh. It had a graphical user interface. No longer were developers confined to 80 columns of text; now they could fill the entire screen with glorious bitmapped graphics.

The catch was, they weren't meant to. In an unprecedented move, Apple published Human Interface Guidelines for developers, which described how a proper Mac application should look and behave. As the current guidelines explain, "The implementation of Apple's human interface principles make the Macintosh what it is: intuitive, friendly, elegant, and powerful."

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