— New ways to use Facebook have already begun to emerge now that the site's creators opened key parts of its technology to outside software developers. Thousands more are likely, Facebook says.
What might those new programs do? Well, imagine a cable TV-like "crawl" along the bottom of the spreadsheet or document you're working on, giving you second-by-second updates on the activities of your Facebook friends. Or the ability to filter updates by certain keywords, so that professionals using Facebook could view only posts relevant to their current projects.
Mouse over a group photo posted by a friend and zoom in on anyone in it. Or mouse over the headline of a news story posted by a friend and have the full story pop up in a separate window.
"It's hard to envision the different ways new Facebook applications may work, but in terms of social-networking importance, what Facebook did ... is a 7 out of 10," said Justin Smith, editor of the online news site Inside Facebook.
He said giving external developers access to Facebook's most important functions "means Facebook will become more embedded in our everyday lives, because there will be more applications that let us share Facebook information without having to go to Facebook.com."
Last week, Facebook gave developers tools to view and use what it calls "the stream" or "the feed." Those terms refer to the contents of a Facebook home page's center column, which presents, in reverse chronological order, friends' photos, videos, comments, conversations, and "likes" (votes on how friends feel about something).
"We're exposing the guts of the application, the things people think about when they think about Facebook," said senior platform manager Dave Morin.
Essentially, the move means the roughly 200 million active Facebook users worldwide will no longer need a browser to view or publish Facebook content. Programs developed to run on desktop or laptop computers, on mobile phones or on the Internet can have nearly the same capabilities available on the Facebook Web site.
For now, the actions of friending and unfriending people, as well as exchanging private messages, will remain activities that can be done only on Facebook’s Web site.
But Morin said that is expected to change sometime in the future.
Users' privacy will be protected as fully by outside programs as it is within Facebook's own site, he said. Users must give programs permission to act on their behalf, and separately, they must be asked for permission to publish information back into the stream.
"There's no way a developer can get around it," Morin said.
Facebook expects "thousands" of developers to create applications, he said. Some may filter the stream, some may combine it with additional information and some may just present it in a different format.
"We don't want to be presumptuous and predict how many developers will take advantage of this, or how they'll do it, but already about 660,000 people develop Facebook applications (based on prior, more limited access), and we do expect a subset of those" to create new Facebook-centric programs, Morin said.
Several have done so already.
One application, Facebook Desktop for Adobe AIR, essentially replicates Facebook but as a program running on the computer, such as Word or Photoshop, and is not accessed through a Web browser.
Another program, Xobni, is designed for Microsoft Outlook users who do heavy-duty, commercial e-mailing. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Through links to Facebook — fashioned in eight frenetic hours starting Monday, said company co-founder Matt Brezina — Xobni can now display in a side panel a person's contact info, friends, videos, photos and other information when that person sends an e-mail to the Xobni user.
Xobni is free but works only with Outlook.
Seesmic Desktop, from San Francisco-based entrepreneur Loic Le Meur, runs on a Mac or PC, combining Facebook's stream with Twitter, the popular site used to apprise others of your current activities through short-form updates.
It updates automatically every 60 seconds, unlike Web-based access to Facebook which requires manual updating, said Le Meur.
Seesmic also lets users group friends by their interests or their importance to you. Images can be dragged and dropped into updates, which can't be done on Facebook's Web site, he said.
Seesmic Desktop was released last week, Le Meur said. "The same functions will soon be available on a Seesmic Web site, he said."
Le Meur sees Facebook's actions as a sign of big things to come.
"This move toward more openness by the No. 1 social networking site is going to move all other sites — LinkedIn, the blog platforms, maybe even Google's Gmail — to be more open," he said. "The year 2009 is going to be the year that social networking opens up."