Technology & Science

Online hangout Facebook to get a facelift

Having nearly tripled its audience and added about 20,000 new applications over the past year, Facebook Inc.'s popular online hangout is about to undergo a housecleaning.

Having nearly tripled its audience and added about 20,000 new applications over the past year, Facebook Inc.'s popular online hangout is about to undergo a housecleaning.

Visitors who can't stand the clutter that's been piling up will be glad to see that the site's new look sweeps disparate bits of information into categories marked by tabs at the top of each user's customized home page.

Basic personal background and interests will be filed under an "info" tab, for instance, while news about users' buddies' latest activities will land under a "feed" tab, pictures will be corralled in a "photo" section and applications will be easily located under a "programs" tab. That content is currently scattered, creating a confusing mishmash that has frustrated some Facebook users.

The facelift, in the works since January, is to debut in June.

Besides tidying the site, the overhaul should give users more control over their profiles, Facebook managers said Wednesday as they previewed the redesign at the startup's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters. Users will be able to magnify information they want to emphasize and downplay other features, for example.

Preparing for protest

Even so, many users are likely to protest, said Mark Slee, the Facebook product manager overseeing the facelift.

"Change is difficult for our users, even positive changes," Slee said. "But we are pretty confident that we can walk everyone through this so they will be engaged with the changes and enjoy them."

Facebook has had to quell two user rebellions since Mark Zuckerberg started the site a little over four years ago while he was still an undergraduate at Harvard University.

In 2006, users railed against a feature called "news feed" as too intrusive because it shared too much information about their activities. The backlash caused Zuckerberg to apologize and tweak the application to give users more control over how the information was shared. The news feed is now a Facebook staple.

Zuckerberg, 24, apologized again late last year after a tracking tool called "Beacon" caught users off-guard by broadcasting information about their shopping habits and personal preferences expressed by their activity at other websites. Facebook decided to allow users to turn off Beacon, diminishing its reach and possible value to advertisers.

Despite those hiccups, Facebook has emerged as Silicon Valley's hottest startup since internet search leader Google Inc., which recently has been losing some of its prized employees to Facebook. Ben Ling, a former top engineer at Google, is part of the team working on Facebook's overhaul.

Microsoft Corp. put its stamp of approval on Facebook late last year by paying $240 million US for a 1.6 per cent stake in the startup — a deal that implied a $15 billion US value for Facebook.

Since dropping a $47.5-billion US offer to buy Yahoo Inc., Microsoft reportedly has been mulling a bid for Facebook, although Zuckerberg has repeatedly indicated he wants to preserve the privately held company's independence.

70 million users

Facebook turned into a potential gold mine as it extended beyond its initial goal of allowing college students swap information about each other. The site now has 70 million users worldwide, up from about 24 million a year ago.

Zuckerberg's decision to open Facebook to outside applications last year has played a key role in Facebook's rapid growth. Since then, developers have contributed 20,000 applications that make it easier to distribute photos, share music and play games.

But all those programs were starting to make Facebook look jumbled — a problem that also has plagued the internet's largest social network, News Corp.'s

Facebook is trying to address the situation without alienating the outside developers who helped fuel the site's success. That's taken on added importance since Google launched a network last year to help developers create applications to run on multiple websites.

After spending months addressing their concerns, Facebook plans to open a "sandbox" where programmers can experiment with how things will work at the redesigned Facebook.

"There may be some short-term pain, but I think there will be more long-term gains," predicted Ling, who is Facebook's director of platform product marketing.