Facebook grows up as a software firm, though some developers are wary

Facebook's new tools raise questions for some developers at F8

Facebook is not your scrappy startup anymore. It's providing a host of tools for third-party developers aimed at catching bugs swiftly, more toolkit options and lending a big helping hand in app development.

On Wednesday the social network -- in a real social move -- held its F8 conference for developers, after three years of laying low and not hosting the quasi-annual event.

F8 is not strictly speaking a consumer-focused affair. It's a gala for third-party software developers looking to harness Facebook's vast bucket of services, including analytics, advertising and promotion tools. Though developers' use of the tools often lead to consumer-facing products, like the Facebook log-in.

That bucket of services is growing. During F8 Facebook announced a stream of new tools, all geared toward helping developers build, grow and monetize their apps. Still other tools come courtesy of Parse, which Facebook acquired last year.

Stability was a key focus in the offerings. "We're focused on building a stable mobile platform," said CEO Mark Zuckerberg, during the keynote address.

The company now has a two-year stability guarantee for its core API (application programming interface), Zuckerberg said. The company also announced API versioning, to let developers decide which version of Facebook's API they'd like to build on.

Previously, Facebook's rapid changes to its API caused headaches for developers, whose apps that relied on it might break when changes were made.

And Zuckerberg said Facebook is committed to fixing all major bugs within 48 hours. The goal, Zuckerberg said, is to make Facebook's platform more stable and reliable for developers to build apps on top of. "We think we can help you ship even more great apps," he said.

Facebook's chief even proposed a snazzy, though less sexy, new mantra for the company. Instead of "move fast and break things," now Facebook is all about -- wait for it -- "move fast with stable infra." Infra is short for infrastructure.

All signs point to Facebook trying to act more like a grown-up software company. As part of that, the company hopes to keep developers happy by providing a more reliable partner to work with.

But are developers really Facebook's friend? It's complicated.

At the show, some developers generally agreed that Facebook has become a more reliable partner, but they still voiced concerns, including the possibility that Facebook might be stretching itself too thin.

"They are still moving fast, but they may not break as many things," said Diana Moldavsky [cq], chief revenue officer at Zeptolab, a Russian gaming company, during an interview.

Zeptolab was an early partner in Facebook's new advertising Audience Network, also announced during the show, which lets developers tap Facebook's user data to deliver targeted ads inside their own apps.

Moldavsky said she views Facebook as a strong strategic partner in their efforts to build exposure for the company's flagship "Cut the Rope" games.

Others, while they can't deny the power of Facebook given its billion-plus users and the data it holds, aren't sure whether the company is over-extending itself or encroaching on others' turf.

"There's too many choices," said Nikolai Chowdhury [cq], a mobile developer and technology consultant. There are other companies out there that do some of what Facebook is now trying to do, such as Appboy, which helps developers monetize their apps and provides data around user engagement.

So for developers, the question is, do you go with those specialized shops, or Facebook, or some combination thereof? It's surely a question more developers are asking themselves now.

Facebook has become enormously successful at getting its users to download others' mobile apps, by placing ads for them in users' streams. These "mobile app install ads" have come to drive the download of over 60 percent of the top-grossing apps in Apple's App Store, according to Facebook.

And with all the data Facebook has amassed on its users, many developers probably can't resist now to leverage that data and partner in some way with the social network.

In the area of user data, Facebook announced some new privacy tools at F8, partly aimed at giving users better controls over what information they give to apps.

But Facebook's privacy controls are not always easy to understand or find, said Kat Hagan [cq], a developer at Automattic.

A big challenge, she said, is as Facebook continues to scale out its platform, "Can they follow through on all their promises?"

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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