Blackbird, Rainman, Facebook and the Watery Web

I’ve seen a number of people make reference to Facebook’s application platform without knowing a lot of background about some historical examples that might be useful to learn from. So, since I remember a good bit of info about these things, I figured I’d share it for future reference.

In 1995, Microsoft believed that its proprietary development tool, codenamed “Blackbird” would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually evolve into a tool that created reasonably standard HTML, Blackbird’s ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences for MSN was considered a no-brainer to replace regular HTML for anything that needed to seem polished. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption at a time when most browsers were showing ugly text on a plain grey background with almost no advanced layout or design.

In 1999, AOL believed that its proprietary development tool, called RAINMAN (Remote Automated INformation MANager) would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually be replaced by tools that created reasonably standard HTML, Rainman’s ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences that integrated seamlessly into the AOL client was an effective replacement for HTML for tens of millions of users who wanted a polished and social first experience on the Net in the late 90s as they first got online. This wasn’t an unreasonable constraint to impose on the experience at a time when having a rich interactive experience meant downloading complicated browser plugins for video, or configuring temperamental client software just to read email.

AOL was always secretive about Rainman, and remains so to this day, even though Rainman has been largely retired in favor of standard HTML, which has let AOL open up much of its proprietary content to the public web. But Microsoft really wanted to get the word out about Blackbird. There were even conferences for developers, to promote Blackbird for their applications. Ironically, MSN would reverse direction from Blackbird almost immediately after launch, eventually building much of its original content around a small vector plugin called FutureSplash. One big reason you have Flash in your browser right now is because MSN aggressively distributed millions of copies of the FutureSplash plugin with all of their client software, and eventually, with Windows itself. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Back in late 1995, the venerable Release 1.0 newsletter offered an analysis of Blackbird that’s well worth reading in its entirety. Some highlights:

Microsoft’s challenge is to make MSN flourish soon, so that it won’t be eclipsed by more open systems, making Blackbird irrelevant, or at least obsolescent. … The question at hand is whether Microsoft’s networked-application architecture makes it beyond MSN’s walls and becomes more commonly used. The innovations Netscape is introducing, described above, make this a difficult task. This is where the battle between proprietary operating systems and the Internet is being fought.

Microsoft wants Blackbird to be an inviting environment for third-party tools. The pace of technological change will help. Connectivity will change all standalone applications, making many obsolete. With Blackbird, Microsoft is attempting to offer traditional Windows applications a viable path to re-create and re-validate themselves in the networked world. … Blackbird has its own representation format, the Blackbird Markup Language (BML), which is a variant of HTML enhanced to be OLE 2.0-aware.

In 2007, Facebook has released its proprietary development platform, codenamed F8. Blackbird was to provide better presentation, and Rainman promised better social abilities, than open standards of their time made possible. F8 promises a combination of both aesthetic and social capabilities, with the key feature of the platform (presented as an “innovation”) being the social APIs for friends lists. F8’s ability to create broadly-distributed social applications that integrate seamlessly into the Facebook environment offers an experience that, for now, exceeds what publicly-available social APIs can do. It’s not an unreasonable behavior that people are building and using applications on the platform today.

  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook’s APIs offer more features than the available open standards do today.
  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook’s APIs have inspired conferences and development toolkits and a lot of reactive responses in the industry.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook APIs offer native integration with social functions like buddy lists.
  • Just like Rainman, the user experience for integrating those applications is far easier than the equivalent behavior on the open web.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook’s APIs support applications that have millions of users, users that the conventional wisdom says could never be displaced.

It’s not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it’s oversimplification to say that Facebook’s API is the new Blackbird, or the new Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.

Some links:

  • We’re opening up the Social Graph. Six Apart, where I work, is committed to helping create, promote, develop for, and popularize the open standards that will be needed for helping grow social platforms from Facebook or anyone else.
  • The O’Reilly Radar Research Report on Facebook’s application platform. Interestingly, given the Release 1.0 report I quoted above, that publication has evolved into Release 2.0, which is now an O’Reilly publication.
  • Jason Kottke on “Facebook vs. AOL“. He covers much of the fundamentals that I’ve discussed here, and helped inspire me to offer some more concrete examples of the history of these sorts of efforts.
  • Somehow I’d missed it at the time, but Scott Heiferman had drawn the analogy to Rainman first. I still feel people aren’t very familiar with that point in web history.
  • Graphing Social Patterns, the conference on Facebook and its applications that Dave McClure is currently hosting.
  • The circle of web life, another similar historical lesson.