Whither the API

Web services have changed how we access them and our data. The open API—Application Programming Interface—is disappearing, and it’s becoming harder to retrieve our own data. To learn more about what’s going on and whether we should worry, I asked some really smart people to weigh in: Loren Brichter, Justin Williams, and Daniel Jalkut.

Blotting out the sun

A decade or two ago, things like open APIs, third-party clients, and exporting our data were common options for using services the way we want or taking our ball and playing elsewhere. Think about plain text files, easily importing all your email between services, and downloading your entire Flickr library.

Now we increasingly have to fight to get a copy of our own data, more services actively asphyxiate their third-party ecosystem, and some simply don’t offer an API at all unless big corporate partners pay-to-play. Our new gardens are not merely walled, they’re heavily fortified.

“I think the ‘Open Web’ movement got pushed aside when mobile got big,” said Justin Williams, “because then there was a huge opportunity to use these APIs in all sorts of apps, but it’s difficult to monetize with third parties.” Consumers have a hard time understanding the value of the work that goes into building apps, so charging developers for what generally started as free API access doesn’t seem viable.

Loren Brichter, owner of atebits and developer of Tweetie, which Twitter bought in 2010 and turned into its official iOS app, agreed there’s a trend here. He went on to point out a deeper problem: “your data is still being hoarded by monoliths.

“Even with open APIs, services can do whatever they want with your data. When companies shut down, that data goes with them (unless you do some sort of manual, bulk export).”

Making matters worse, most modern service features and architecture are often so fundamentally different, or just plain anticompetitive and unregulated, that normal consumers generally cannot move their data from one service to another. Try importing your Twitter archive into Facebook some time, and remember when Steve Jobs infamously claimed Apple would release FaceTime as an open, documented standard?

Some mass-market organizations make the effort to build these bridges, but it’s usually just to help lure new customers from a competitor. Genuinely interchangeable file formats have largely gone the way of the dodo.

A ray of light

“I’m not sure whether this is a trend,” Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software says, “or just that some of the highest-profile services happen to have taken relatively API-dismissive stances.”

He cites Flickr as a good example. After all this time, it continues to offer a robust, well-documented API that provides third parties with access to just about everything the site can do. Plus, Flickr’s developers apparently dogfood it.

“I’ve always understood it to be the case that Flickr’s API is so good because Flickr’s developers built the site on the public API. I don’t know if this is 100% true, but it’s a great idea. Imagine how great the APIs for a variety of web services would be if they were built in this manner.”

“Instead,” Jalkut flips the coin, “API support for web services are almost universally considered as a ‘tack-on’ functionality. They are a limited-scope entry point to a usually much more complex data space than the API has the ability to expose.” His first example is WordPress, a service with rich in-browser features that have never been mirrored well for third party use, such as his MarsEdit blogging app for Mac. He then threw down the gauntlet with Squarespace, a service that used to offer a limited API, but axed it completely with a recent service revamp.

The circle of tech

If this is a trend, though, and if we are losing access to our own data and flexibility in the tools we use to create it, Brichter took a step back to view the bigger picture.

“Perhaps this is part of the natural cycle of technology. Proprietary interests blaze a path and help us discover the kinds of tools we find useful, democratization follows as the dust settles. But that transition may never happen if we consider it ‘normal’ that you can’t send someone a Facebook message via iMessage.

“And Apple doing a business deal with Facebook to enable that would be missing the point.”