New Twists In Facebook Timeline Drama

Facebook Timeline 3

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Facebook’s new Timeline, the feature that will replace user profiles with a chronological digital scrapbook. A recent wall posting from a Facebook employee suggests the company is aiming for an “end of the year” rollout. Meanwhile, a December court date has been set in the increasingly nasty trademark fight between Facebook and website Timelines.com

Mark Arruda runs a site that offers customized images, which he calls Facebook Covers for users to place atop their Timeline page. Since his business is directly tied to the new feature, he has been searching for hints about when Timeline will become available to the general public (it is now only available to developers who have signed up for a pilot version). During his research, Arruda discovered Facebook employees discussing Timeline’s release date on their own Facebook pages.

One of the posts is from a Facebook executive named Mike Schroepfer, who is welcoming new engineers to a bootcamp that the company offers. In the ensuing conversation thread, he responds to a question about Timeline by saying, “we are still testing with developers – hope to roll it out for wider testing before the end of the year.”

Arruda has posted a screenshot of this exchange that blurs out the participants’ names. But it’s easy enough to confirm that that post is indeed from Schroepfer’s Facebook page, and that it was posted on October 14. That’s because Schroepfer, who goes by “Schrep,” has not adjusted his privacy settings to prevent the public from reading his wall posts. Our own screenshot of the exchange is embedded below.

The upshot of Schroepfer’s comments is that the public release of Timeline appears to be as far off as it was when Mark Zuckerberg announced at the f8 conference on September 22 that the feature would arrive “in coming weeks.” Some people, including Arruda, believe that the delay is part of a deliberate strategy by Facebook to introduce the feature gradually.

“It’s very possible that it was going to be a slow rollout from the very beginning. It’s probably to keep users happy. Users like to keep things static,” said Arruda, who described Timeline as “great.”

The reluctance of Facebook users to embrace change was described this week by David Pogue in the New York Times (NYSE: NYT). Pogue praised Timeline as a “genuinely useful online tool” and sympathized with Facebook’s plight in dealing with user gripes: “Any time a company with 800 million active customers makes a change, a certain predictable percentage of them go ballistic.”

This backs the view that the Timeline delay is nothing more than a strategic choice by Facebook. Still, there is the question of the lawsuit.

Recall that Timelines.com in late September filed an urgent request asking a court to prevent Facebook from using the name, saying the Chicago site would be “rolled over” and “eliminated” by the social networking giant. Shortly after, a federal judge refused to grant a temporary restraining order but did require Facebook to make ongoing disclosures about how many developers were signing up for the feature. He also ruled that Timelines.com could file for another restraining order if this sign-up number was much greater than expected.

Since then, the legal fight has intensified. Timelines.com has posted a plea on its homepage asking for the public’s help in defending its trademark. And a Tuesday court filing shows that the parties are to meet for a status hearing on December 6. These hearings are often used to determine procedural issues ahead of an impending trial.

It’s entirely possible that it’s the court case — rather than last-minute tweaking of the product by engineers — that is holding up the Timeline rollout. Timelines.com has a strong case because it has a registered trademark for the very service that Facebook intends to offer. In deciding to grant an injunction, courts will look in part at whether a party will suffer “irreparable harm” and it is hard to conclude that Timelines.com would not be harmed if its product name is adopted by 800 million Facebook users.

Facebook declined to comment for the story. Timelines.com and its lawyers did not return calls for comment.

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