Facebook open to a world of apps

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Kai Ryssdal: Today is iPhone day, everybody. In case you've been living under a rock, the new iPhone 3G went on sale this morning, which is all well and good, but half the hoopla about the new phone isn't really about the phone at all.

It's about Apple letting users download third party applications for it -- that is, software the company didn't make.

These applications -- apps, for those in the know -- have really taken off in the past year, thanks in part to social networking giants Facebook and MySpace opening themselves up to outside developers.

Youth Radio's Ankitha Bharadwaj explains what the app craze is all about.


Ankitha Bharadwaj: My friend Caitlin Grey sure has some caring pals.

Caitlin Grey: Gifts I've gotten lately have been a pair of red stiletto heels, a bowl of Vietnamese noodles and a panda.

Of course, these aren't real gifts. Caitlin received these presents virtually via Facebook applications. They're kind of like accessories you add to your Facebook profile to jazzify your page and interact with your friends in unexpected ways.

Nico Savidge: There's my profile picture...

That's my friend, Nico Savidge. He's got like 12 apps on his profile page -- and they're not all about gift-giving. There's an application that lets you play virtual Scrabble

Savidge: Here's one of my applications.

Another one lets Nico rate movies and see how his taste compares with friends -- including me.

Savidge: How could you not like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective!

Bharadwaj: Because Jim Carey gets under my skin!

Savidge: He's a genius! How could you not like Goldmember?

You see how this conversation evolved? That's pretty much the point of apps like this one -- well, according to Brett Keintz, anyway. Keintz took a whole class on Facebook apps at Stanford last fall. He and some classmates created one that lets you chuck snowballs at your friends.

Brett Keintz: Me throwing a snowball at you: I could be flirting with you, I could be mad at you, I could be just saying "Hi." Even though it's virtual, it's not a trivial thing. There's a lot of meaning in that snowball.

The most popular applicatoins make people want to spend more time on sites like Facebook. That's why the company let outside developers tinker with their code.

Facebook VP Chamath Palihapatiya says it's lured in almost a quarter-million app developers.

Chamath Palihapatiya: We were never going to build everything for our users because it's just not possible. It's not possible from a practical sense to hire 250,000 people.

So instead, Facebook acts as a small business incubator for developers who try to make money by placing ads on their applications.

Keintz -- you know, the snowball guy -- he launched an app company with Stanford classmate Dan Ackerman-Greenberg. Soon after their business took off, Greenberg put in a little phone call to his dad.

Dan Ackerman-Greenberg: And I said, "Hey Dad, I'm having so much trouble juggling school and this business we're running." And be basically told me, "If you don't drop out of school tomorrow, you're going to regret it for the next 30 years." It's kinda silly to say I dropped out of school because I made an application called "Hugs."

Greenberg's app lets me send a picture of a fuzzy creature of indeterminate species to all my online buddies with the caption "Awkward Hug from Ankitha."

Kara Swisher: Hugs are very nice. It's fine and it's terrific...

That's Kara Swisher from the Wall Street Journal website All Things D.

Swisher: But it's not a business that is sustainable and that's what we're really talking about here.

Some critics take a look at all this enthusiasm about apps and flash back to the first dot-com bubble, especially with high-flying valuations like $550 million for one app company called Slide. But developers who've struck a chord with their apps are making hundreds of thousands of dollars through advertising. For lots of young techies, that's reason enough to keep pulling all-nighters and cranking out code.

In Oakland, I'm Ankitha Bharadwaj for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: That story was produced for us by Youth Radio.

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