My completely speculative theory on the social operating system.

There is a battle for control of the next generation of the internet, and this revolves around my thesis that the current phase in the evolution of the web involves the connecting of people.  The battle is being waged by google, facebook, myspace, and a littany of others all vying for this control.

How we got to this point.
The first phase of this battle was about amassing as many users as possible as fast as possible. These users are your asset, they make your network exponentially more valuable. Facebook’s 70 million users are creating billions of unique connections, these connections each hold an intrinsic value in the grand scheme.   So they gave us developers a platform, a platform which is mutually beneficial.  This platform enabled them to double their user base, and at the same time offered the developers a simple way to tap that large and growing user base. 

So while facebook was giving us apps on their own, google was getting all the networks together to build their graph for them.  Google has seen this change coming for years. YEARS. They saw the evolution in social behaviors affecting the internet long before us common folk saw it. They just didn’t have the accounts to leverage it all (orkut has yet to take off here, and gmail isn’t massive enough in reach yet either), so they went to the 3-10th place networks and proposed a deal, that deal was OpenSocial.

There is an important thing to remember when it comes to these companies, they may give you something for free, but they are really making something from your data, so don’t feel bad for them.

What the next phase is:
Controlling the relationships and blowing them out to the entire web. Thats the central thesis behind the google friend connect, and the enabling of ajax api functionalities on facebook (that and the facebook friend connect thing too).  Once you amass enough users, and then tell the thousands of individual sites out there they can plugin your tool and become part of your network, you will have a massive amount of control over managing that network.

For those of you that have been following the teasers of Facebook’s redesign, the one coming july 15th, you might have noticed the shift to make it more like a desktop operating system interface (menu bar, footer/dock).  This is analagous to the concept they are working on to spread throughout the web. Why wouldn’t you install the facebook toolbar on your website if you could quickly and easily enable social relationships on a massive scale?  The quality of these relationships is important too, and that is where facebook has been trying to leverage its position as the social operating system. The Windows or OS X of your relationships.

So what can we expect?
Smart sites will foster this and try and grow with the two platforms, it won’t be easy, but they will be spectacularly worthwhile. Sites that don’t embrace it out of either fear or lack of technical knowledge will miss out while the smaller sites quickly grow past them. The sites that embrace these social levers will see the types of growth we saw on the initial facebook platform applications, but with the flexibility to grow their own loyal bases.

We will also start to see more emergence of open social graph standards spreading around like DiSO and others. Assuming developers can make these things idiot-proof, you’ll be able to move to any site and tap into your relationships wherever possible. The key there will be making them seamless to the user.

Ultimately this represents a major shift in how we design sites and develop their underlying concepts. The social “network” has become a feature or a commodity.