Bebo Launches Platform, Aligns with Facebook

Bebo this morning said it will launch an application platform of its own tonight, closely modeled on that of Facebook. The social network, which claims 40 million users and has an especially strong presence in the UK, in fact is working closely with Facebook to remain compatible as it changes, so that developers don’t have to put much work into transferring what they’ve already built.

Bebo CEO Michael Birch said his company is concurrently working with Google’s OpenSocial interoperability initiative, but wanted to get its own platform out the door before that alliance is ready. Bebo is posing itself as a friend to everyone, but since Facebook and Google are at odds, we’ll have to see how its allegiances are tested when OpenSocial launches (which Birch said he expected will take place “early next year”).

Birch — who with his low-key performance charmed the small crowd at Bebo’s launch event this morning in San Francisco — admitted his company trails both Facebook and MySpace in terms of U.S. users. Bebo, following MySpace, did start including widgets from outside developers a while back, but in a very controlled form, and with far less functionality than the new application platform allows. Now it is quite clearly following Facebook. “We’re trying to take the great product and utility of Facebook and wrap that around the content and self-expression of MySpace,” Birch said.

Indeed, Bebo’s platform is nearly identical to Facebook’s, with only very topical changes: for example, users can rate applications one to five stars, and developers can skin their app pages with their own design. It’s notable that Facebook is on board with being so blatantly copied, but it seems Birch — who did the opposite of “channeling Steve Jobs” at his platform launch, a far cry from the Facebook extravaganza last May — was able to work his low-key charm on Facebook. In fact it sounds like the two companies plan to work closely together.

“We are working with Facebook on this; they’re aware that we’re launching today,” Birch said. “Today we’re compatible with where they were six weeks ago. Ultimately we will end up launching at the same time they launch a new feature.”

Update: We spoke further with Michael Birch, Bebo co-founder Xochi Birch (who is also married to Michael), and some application developers at the event.

Regarding adding new developers: Forty partners were included in today’s launch, for a total of 50 apps. Bebo will open its platform to additional developers once it feels it is stable. Xochi said she expects that to be in about two weeks. Michael said that due to Bebo’s compatibility with Facebook, potentially thousands of developers could port their apps, and he wants to make sure Bebo can deal with that.

Regarding OpenSocial vs. Facebook: Michael seemed to think Google and Facebook would find a way to get along, because he thinks having two standards doesn’t make that much sense. “We don’t want it to be like Windows vs. Mac,” he said.

iLike CEO Ali Partovi, a Bebo partner with a successful Facebook app who has been closely involved with OpenSocial, said his worry is that MySpace will create a third platform of its own, out of pride. Michael said he thought that was unlikely because MySpace is already aligned with Google for advertising and has agreed to be part of OpenSocial. But none of them could see MySpace doing what Bebo has done and aligning an independent platform with Facebook.

Meanwhile, Facebook posted on its developers’ blog that it is opening up its platform for licensing by other sites. So this is not just a one-time thing. Facebook’s development speed appears to have been key in scoring its first converted competitor. Michael and Xochi stressed that they went with Facebook because they need to keep up with market demand, so they don’t want to wait around for OpenSocial to be ready.

This makes a hat trick of social networks who have launched platforms this week, following LinkedIn on Monday and Friendster on Tuesday. Must be something in the eggnog this year.