The rise and fall of web APIs

Ever since its inception, Twitter has been the poster child of the web mashups. You might even argue that Twitter was the catalyst behind the whole web API movement.

Social drives engagement, engagement brings in advertising revenue. Or at least that was the plan.

Now that the pressure is on, it's time to tighten the reins. That's not an excuse to leave developers in the dark, but it's a reasonable decision from a business perspective (or maybe not). But, when you compare the Twitter API to others, it's easy to see how fortunate we've been.

You can use tweets for offline analysis, promotional activities and develop games on top of it. Once you dive in the terms of service for the different APIs, you quickly realize how limited their use really is (without some sort of opaque partnership program).

Who owns what

These limitations bring up another question; who really owns what? Can a company x forbid company y to pull out a user's data with their explicit permission? Is company x just providing an infrastructure for the data of the or is it adding some value?

Of course it depends. Posting a photo on Flickr is an interesting example. I would own the rights to the picture, but what about the comments? Flickr definitely adds value by providing a cozy community where people can comment on my photos, but what if I just want to get my photo out?

Company interests

Protecting your interests as a company and maintaining a competitive advantage over your potential competitors is difficult. Determining whether a company adds value other than providing the infrastructure isn't a practical way to approach this problem.

Instead companies should be listening to their developers and decide on a case-to-case basis what is allowed and what is not. This would be a great job for developer advocates. Business really won't mind paying for access to these APIs, as long as their concerns are heard and they can get the data out they need.

What is next?

The debate on open data and distributed social networks has been heating up in the past few months. It will be interesting to see whether the general public feels like migrating to a more open social network.

My money is on micro-standards. Their light-weight markup make them extremely easy to implement in a distributed fashion (your personal website!), but aggregation is a problem that still has to be tackled.