logo-orkutA couple of weeks ago, Orkut, a Google owned social networking site which primarily has users from India and Brazil, rolled out its “new version”. Upon going through the site and the screenshots, there there appeared to be very little that was “new” about the new Orkut in terms of features; only an updated user interface. During the course of a conversation with Google India Product Manager Rahul Kulkarni in Bangalore last week, we learned that this is among the biggest changes to Orkut yet, only, the changes are primarily under the hood.

The New Platform

All this while, Orkut had been running on legacy code which made it difficult to experiment with. Kulkarni said that they needed to switch to a platform with which everything is fast, scalable and easy to iterate with. “We’re using the Google WebToolkit, which is also used for Wave. With it, we can program in Java, and it automatically gets converted for Javascript optimized for various browsers; we don’t have to worry about hard-coding Javascript just to optimize little things. The platform will enable us to pilot changes more often: what we have put out right now is the first revision of a user interface that will continuously change over the next six to eight months or a year. What we are going to try experimenting with is to try surfacing things selectively and ranking things better.”

The transition took them almost a year, and Kulkarni says they were aware there wouldn’t be “big bang features” launched initially. “We did optimize in terms of the number of calls to the back end: calls to the database being made for a page to load, whether they can be grouped, retrieved from the same database, and can we co-locate the data for the class of users who will access it from the same geo? Optimization was about deciding how we want to pull the data,” he added.

What The New Platform Will Allow

The platform in use allows Orkut to include various Google products into Orkut, and in future, pull components from Maps or Wave into Orkut. At present, the same chat session runs on GMail, GTalk client and on Orkut. Video chat has been incorporated from GTalk, Face Detection in photos from Picasa.

On user research, they found that people really interact with a maximum of 15 people on any given day. “The DNA of Orkut is that it is about personalized conversation. There are two challenges: How do you surface content from those 15 people on that day, and how do we push that 10-15 people in front of you so it’s easy to interact with them.” The real value, according to Kulkarni, is in friend-rank: “Ranking will be easier for us – one of the thing is how to sort it in the UI. Also, friend suggestions on Orkut leverage the Google platform to figure out who is already is on Orkut. We can do profile suggestions on the basis of GTalk. It increases activity and brings people back.”

Kulkarni believes that we’re moving towards common platforms. “We do share Photos on Email and Picasa, Videos on YouTube, with the same login. Then why are we shuffling users through different sites? The experience seamless, and that’s one of the things you’ll see moving ahead.”

Is It Enough?

We don’t think so. While the ability to easily build upon Orkut helps, differentiated products do matter. Will a social mash-up of Google services be enough? What is Orkut going to do, to bring someone like me who exited the site two years ago, and moved first to Facebook, then Twitter?

Kulkarni said that it’s not that people have exited Orkut, they do check it once in a while and “What we believe is that when you have more activity from people who continue to be more active on Orkut, they will attract the rest of the social graph automatically. What would also matter is that you will get touched by Orkut, not consciously, but you can be on YouTube, and share a video on Orkut. You will have links that will bring you back…but nothing to your friends calling you back.”

Plans To Open Orkut Mobile API

Orkut has a J2ME application, and Kulkarni says that they’re in the process of opening up the Orkut API on Mobile. “We’d like to get client libraries that have a J2ME compatible feel to it, so things don’t break. For example, arrays are not very well supported in J2ME. We need to reorder, rework the APIs, such that we don’t use constructs like this. We don’t want to be a closed network.” Kulkarni declined to put a date to the plans to open up the mobile API.

Data Liberation

There was an issue with Data Liberation at Orkut: Techcrunch reported that Orkut no longer allows export of user email addresses, and speculation is rife about whether this is in order to prevent users switching to Facebook en masse. Kulkarni says that though they’ve always had the export button, they don’t want sites to get this data to spam users. “If it is being genuinely being used by users…the same sites who are asking for data, why aren’t they exporting their email? Data liberation is not a site to site affair, it is a site to user affair. We have taken care that whatever users want, we’ll always provide it. It shouldn’t be misused by making it a site to site play, and spamming your friends. If you are in my contact list and I export it, did you give me permission to publish your contacts? Even in OpenSocial, we have been careful about the way people expose their photos and their profile fields. We have stayed away from giving a blaket permission to any app. We still have checkboxes for profile fields, and photos has been kept unchecked by default.”

Our suggestion: if they’re really serious about data liberation, and are not trying to prevent people from taking their networks with them out of Orkut, then why not just have another level of authentication and warning about spam, and allow users to choose whether their friends can export their profiles, or share their details with others.