Local Developers Pick Facebook

By Robert Janelle

Originally published in National Capital Scan, April 2008

On a Friday afternoon, TravelPod founder Luc Levesque sat back and cracked open a beer, relaxing from three weeks of hard work. Travel IQ, a geography quiz developed by the company had just been uploaded to Facebook and they were awaiting approval.

Mr. Levesque and his staff watched as the Facebook employee testing the game installed it.

Soon after, the employee’s friends began installing it and from there it was being installed on hundreds of profles, eventually peaking at 1.9 million installs.

“Once it gets out in the wild, it propagates and spreads virally,” says Mr. Levesque.

TravelPod is just one Ottawa firm that’s joined the social networking gold rush since Facebook made its application programming interface (API) public in May 2007.

While other social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster allow developers to create little widgets for profles, they are limited in the functionality they create and even more limited in how to monetize what is built.

Facebook, by contrast, went completely open and allowed developers to create whatever they wanted, within reason. It’s an appealing platform for developers because the �viral' nature of having friends invite other friends to install an app. It takes only one click to install it, rather than having to sign up and wait for a confrmation Email like stand-alone web applications.

TravelPod, which provides a platform for travel blogs, had previously created a badge for social networking profiles to give users of their service an attractive link to their travel blogs. But with the possibility created by Facebook’s completely open API, Mr. Levesque wanted to do more.

Inspired by games he played with travel companions at bus stations and airport terminals, TravelPod built a geography quiz game which rewards (or punishes) players at the end with a Travel IQ score, which can also be displayed on their profle, giving Facebookers something to compete over.

Along with the ability to quickly compare game scores, one of the hallmarks of social media is the ability to share interesting content on the Internet.

With that in mind, entrepreneur Allan Isfan has been working to bring social video sharing to Facebook with his application, FaveQuest.

“I noticed three waves culminating into something big,” says Mr. Isfan. “Online entertainment, social networking and personalization. We wanted to build something that would ride all three waves.”

The idea behind FaveQuest is that users install the application and tell it which videos they like. It then looks through the files of friends who are also using FaveQuest to see what videos they are watching and brings them in as recommendations.

While FaveQuest is in the wild, Mr. Isfan says it’s still being tinkered with and he expects wider adoption once it’s ready for an offcial launch.

With everything that can now be done through social networking, the most common use is still communication. For some people, sites like Facebook have replaced Email and iotum CEO Alec Saunders has brought voice communication to the platform with the FREE Conference Calls application, which allows users with a microphone to make group calls through the social networking site.

The conference calling application was inspired by an older iotum product, a Blackberry presence app that would notify users when their contacts were available.

After studying the usage, Mr. Saunders found the most popular use for the program was to schedule conference calls.

This led to plans to build a social network platform around group calls. But while working on the platform, Facebook’s open API was released and the decision was made to build on their network.

FREE Conference Calls was adopted a little more slowly than other applications, but through some creative marketing (Mr. Saunders uses the application to host a daily podcast) it was eventually installed by more than 200,000 users.

While the iotum app is mostly used by small businesses, there have been some other interesting uses.

“One person held a wake with it,” says Mr. Saunders.

As with any online venture, the biggest challenge is usually figuring out how to bring in a revenue stream.

In the case of iotum, the company receives a commission for sending traffc to the voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) providers they’ve partnered with.

For Mr. Levesque, the original plan was use to Travel IQ to send more traffc to the TravelPod network but they’ve since been able to secure sponsorship from the likes of NBC, giving the game a life of its own.

TravelPod is now looking to build on that success with the recently created division TravelPod Labs, which is dedicated to building more social network widgets.

With FaveQuest, Mr. Isfan has been approaching media companies about white-boxing the application so they can create their own branded social video portals. He’s also been contacted by smaller companies looking to use his system to distribute corporate training videos to employees.

Besides monetization, there other challenges specific to developing on a third-party platform.

The biggest being changes to code that tend to break everyone’s applications.

“In the early days, we were a moving target,” says Mr. Saunders, whose developers used to have to scramble to change the application on a weekly basis to keep up with platform updates.

According to all three entrepreneurs, that situation has improved thanks to regular updates in newsletters and a discussion forum for developers.

However, there are also some issues with limits placed on Facebook developers.

To keep the site from being infested with spam, limits are placed on the number of notifications an application can send in a day. This makes it difficult for iotum to add a feature that automatically invites users to scheduled conference calls.

“But in their defence, they are very responsive,” says Mr. Saunders who has argued his case with the Palo Alto, California-based company on a number of occasions.

Finally, there is an issue of fickle Facebook users.

While the platform is appealing due to easy one-click installs for programs, it also takes a single mouse click to uninstall it.

“You can build anything you want in Facebook,” says Mr. Saunders. “But it’s hard to build something good.”