Developers & APIs: The Rules of Engagement

By Whitney Phaneuf , written on July 13, 2012

From The News Desk

If you haven't been following the Internet forums and developer blogs, it's been a dramatic month for the API ecosystem. The debate often boils down to a question over who owns the content generated by users, the platform companies or the public -- a question that won't be answered anytime soon.

There is one conclusion upon which most developers agree: A startup that depends solely on a third-party API doesn't stand a chance of survival. Even when an app adds significant value, developers say it's about knowing how to cover your ass and innovate ahead of changing APIs.

Developers feel platform companies are stifling innovation by policing APIs, and the platform companies are trying to prevent APIs from being exploited to the point that it'll hurt their businesses. Here's a refresh on the latest in this thinking: Craigslist crippled Padmapper for scraping its data, LinkedIn killed Pealk, Netflix recently changed its API Terms, and Twitter has developers nervous it'll cut off third-party access altogether. After talking to developers, much of their fears could be put to rest through transparency and communication from platform companies.

SportStream co-founder Bob Morgan has been building mobile apps for 12 years and says everyone knows the platform companies hold the power. SportStream has built a strong relationship with Twitter to develop its iPad app that filters Tweets to connect sports fans to personalized content about games. And Morgan says API documentation has come a long way from the old days, noting policy changes used to happen without notice and code could suddenly break without warning.

"Policies change. That’s part of the friction. As a developer when you commit to a platform, you have to understand it and stay ahead of it. It’s never static," says Morgan. "You should always look at how you’re creating something unique. If you’re mimicking what the platform already does, you’ll have trouble."

It's where Pealk got it wrong, says Jeremy Frazao, VP Engineering at FlixMaster, who built upon Facebook's API while Director of Technology at Kiva. He analogized Pealk’s headhunting app for LinkedIn like someone coming into a Wal-Mart and luring in customers to a separate cash register based on a claim of superior service. LinkedIn's silence about its decision to kill the app is what really has developers worried. Frazao experienced similar communication issues when he worked with Facebook's API for Kiva.

"That was the biggest challenge: Poor documentation and changes with no warning. Do they owe developers any notice? No, it’s their API. But they run the risk of alienating developer community," says Frazao.

The platform company Frazao says he'd avoid at all costs as a third-party developer? Twitter. He says with $500 million of other people’s money and a lot to prove, the company is at an inflection point that's dangerous for developers. "Five years ago, Twitter was the disruptor. Now it’s the establishment. I wouldn’t spend time building something on a platform that might change underneath me," says Frazao.

Developer Octavian Costache says he's grateful to have APIs to build upon, having worked with Facebook and now Twitter for his automated journalism feed Context. "The platforms are enablers, so the developers need to stop whining and deal with what's being offered," says Costache. "I don't look at this as a major issue, maybe because so far none of my apps have had huge traction."

If Costache ends up finding traction with Context, which depends on the distribution of individual Tweets, it'll be interesting to see how Twitter reacts. Twitter claims no legal ownership of Tweets and denies wanting to be a media company. In January, Twitter abruptly shut down filter Proxlet, saying the app "could" have led to a leak of personal information.

[Image source: wikimedia]