Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 3 months, you are likely to have heard about Facebook’s new platform code named f8. On May 24, 2007 Facebook opened up its gates to developers worldwide. Since that day over 100,000 developers have requested permission to build applications, and over 3,500 applications have been launched.

Before you run off and start building/plotting your next Facebook app, there are a few things about the Facebook platform that you need to examine first: what you are building on (what is the platform); why you are building it; what could go bad (potential pitfalls); and lastly what the potential market is (why it’s important).

I am often asked to explain the Facebook platform to people in and around Miami, so let me first explain what it is, then what it is not. First off, the platform is really an extended API more than anything. Facebook has provided us with a tool that lets us interact with Facebook user data, and piggyback off Facebook’s existing user base (its members). In return for Facebook giving us tons of user data, they keep their users in Facebook longer, since your application runs within Facebook’s domain and site navigation structure. When you boil it down, Facebook is creating a shell to wrap around your application in exchange for providing you with pre-verified and authenticated users. With that in mind, it’s important to remember what Facebook is not, it is not an application hosting service. Facebook will not be hosting your application or its services in any shape or form, they are relying on you to foot that bill, and manage it to your best ability.

So now that you understand (sort of) the concept of the Facebook platform, the next step is to figure out why you are thinking about building an app for Facebook. From my experience with Facebook, and the application development platform, I think the key reasons to consider when planning your application should be: how can I leverage the immense user data, and how can I leverage the strength of Facebook’s social graph? Once you’ve thought of that, then you are ready to start plotting your app. Before you dive in headfirst, you should be able to answer yourself the following:

  • Does the utility of your application increase with each additional user?
  • Is someone doing exactly the same idea on Facebook already (not a deal breaker IMO)
  • Is this for an existing or new application?
  • Would Facebook integration enhance your existing site’s utility?

Assuming you wrote down or made a mental note of your reasons, I’ll go on to outline the potential pitfalls. Perhaps the biggest pitfall I can see is cost. Infrastructure costs can soar immensely. If you don’t first put in place a plan to scale well, you could be dead in the water before you know it. One of the notable examples of this was the Where I’ve Been application which skyrocketed to 250,000 users and was costing the developer thousands in server costs to keep it running. Aside from server costs, the only other major pitfall is that your application, if not designed to scale on the software side, could prove unusable if it’s not architected to serve hundreds of thousands or millions of users (something newbies might not know to do before setting out).

Ok, so enough doom and gloom, what are we talking about potential wise? Well, as of the last measurement, in July sometime, Facebook had 30Million active users, and was growing at 100,000 new users per day. Fast forward to September, and we are closer to 35Million users, and growth has escalated to closer to 150,000 new users per day (over a million per week!). So you’ve got this amazing potential user base with a low-friction barrier to entry into your application/service. You’ve got a mountain of user data you can play with (contextual, relational, and, potentially, behavioral advertising material), an inherently viral platform to deploy it on, and tons of companies chomping at the bit to help you monetize your work. Sounds to me like the potential far outweighs your costs.

Now you know what Facebook is, why you should build on it, what could go wrong, but also what could go well. So what are you waiting for? It seems to me that if you are involved in web services, your company needs to start investigating the potential of social media, and the value that Facebook might be able to add to your existing or new products or services.