For those of you who have met me in person, you’d know that I have long been championing the need for a technology that would enable ‘profile portability’.

A key constraint with social networks is that they force you to choose. You must choose whether you will invest your time and efforts in Facebook, or MySpace, or LinkedIn, or Bebo or any of the myriad social networking services currently available.

Developing, maintaining and building your profile and social network can be a time intensive process (depending how committed you are). Social networking companies (and their investors) see this as a good thing, because it promotes (in their view) ‘stickiness’ and creates an artificial barrier to exit. The thinking is that the more time and effort consumers invest in creating their profile and building their network of friends and acquaintances, the less likely they are to abandon the site and move elsewhere, because they would be forced, in essence, to start from scratch.

What this thinking overlooks is that by creating a ‘walled garden’ around consumer’s social interactions, these companies actually introduce problems (pain) for the very consumers they were seeking to attract and retain.

For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, life is good. But if only some are on Facebook, while others are on Bebo, and others still on MySpace etc., then you have a very real problem – you need to maintain multiple profiles, and manage multiple ‘portfolios’ of social connections and interactions. The alternative is to elect to inhibit your interactions with those friends that use a different social networking service – not a particularly palatable choice.

Equally, if you maintain multiple profiles across different networks, then when you want to update your profile, you must repeat the process several times, or choose to actively maintain one or more profiles, while allowing the others to go ‘stale’. 

The social networking environment today is in much the same situation the mobile/cell phone industry was a decade ago – it forced consumers to make a choice.

Because there was no network interoperability, you had to choose a mobile network, and were forced to operate within that network. If your friends used the same mobile provider, life was good. But if your friends used other mobile network providers, you could not call or sms them. The end result was continuous churn, as consumers moved to the network that held that largest percentage of the people they needed to stay in contact with.

Equally, back in the bad days of ‘walled garden’ email services, consumers were forced to maintain multiple email accounts with multiple service providers (and thus multiple email contact databases in multiple email applications), to ensure that most (though usually not all) of their friends could communicate with them electronically. Having an MCI email address wasn’t enough. You also needed a Compuserve and AOL email address, as well as a UUCP email address to maintain a link to those who hadn’t migrated yet from BBS-based messaging services.

History tells us that consumers will not endure such forced choices for long. Just as phone, email and Internet service providers were forced to ‘open’ their networks, so too will social networking service providers.

Google, via OpenSocial, appears to be the first to offer a solution that will provide the level of openness consumers will surely demand.

With OpenSocial, consumers need only invest time and effort building a ‘master’ profile, and can use that profile to move between different social networks. Over time, we can expect a unified messaging and push communications process (in the same way that Instant Messaging services were forced to support interoperability).

The end result is that social networks will start competing at the edges – it will really become a ‘branding’ (social network affiliation as fashion accessory anyone???) and innovation play.

(If you accept this logic, it should come as no surprise that Kylie Minogue has launched a Kylie-branded social networking service – KylieKonnect.)

Consumers will choose as their primary social network that company whose brand elements they most identify with and, to a lesser (though still important) degree, that which continues to innovate to create services that they value.

Given the network-as-a-platform trend, most of this innovation will come in the form of 3rd party apps, so the real competition will be around which network secures the largest number of JVs/partnerships with apps developers, in the same way that games consoles developers are heavily reliant on securing a pipeline of blockbuster games from 3rd party developers to maintain the consumer appeal of their platforms.

Google has once again made a smart move. It isn’t too late for others to enter the play, though.

I doubt Google is really interested in ‘owning’ the social network platform. Social networking is an emotional experience, which is not something Google has been good at providing historically (search is a logical, task-oriented process).

Instead, providing the platform that enables profile migration and universal communications, as well as being able to capture a single view of each individuals’ “social graph” across multiple social service networks,  positions Google to extract yet another layer of data about people, their interests, needs and wants, which will serve to re-enforce Google’s dominance in search and targeted advertising.