The Dish on Foodspotting's Semi-Public API

Food-sharing mobile photo app Foodspotting had an API since day one. Of course, every mobile app has an API, at least if it needs to store or retrieve non-trivial data. Most of those interfaces stay hidden away, private APIs with only that single, internal audience. Foodspotting, on the other hand, signed Zagat as an early partner and now also has OpenTable, among others, using its Foodspotting API. The company is not exactly making it widely available for any developer, though the Documentation is public, planting it in a vast grey area that's becoming increasingly common.

"Pretty much immediately people asked for an API," Foodspotting CTO Ted Grubb said. The company was--and is--a very small team. It couldn't justify widely opening its API and being deluged by developers. It's a problem many API providers would love to have, but certainly not one to write off.

Supporting an API is a major task. Foodspotting is likely right to focus its limited attention to its partners, who potentially offer a lot of visibility to Foodspotting and maybe revenue, too. And, for the time being, Grubb prefers to keep its API only semi-public. "We don't necessarily see us as a Platform like Foursquare or Twitter where people are building applications on top of us," he said.

Grubb is still soliciting developer use cases and is on the lookout for unique ideas for integrating with Foodspotting. So far, the company has responded to the most common uses of the data by creating Foodspotting widgets (see above), which display photos by place, person or type of food.

Other popular mobile and web apps have played the same waiting game with their APIs. Location-sharing app Foursquare waited eight months until the check-in service let any developer check out its API. Famously, photo-sharing site Instagram saw its API reverse engineered. Two months later it announced a beta API. Lastly, Q&A site Quora had developer interest for over a year before pushing out a very alpha Quora API in January. In a Quora thread a year earlier Facebook's former platform manager Dave Morin, someone who knows a thing or two about developer programs, advised Quora to "wait as long as possible."

Foodspotting isn't breaking new ground with its decision to keep a short leash on its API. Due to its partnerships, the company probably has a more robust API than most that aren't completely public. It also keeps its documentation public, so any developer--or potential partner--can see what the service can do.

So, what sort of applications does Foodspotting want to see? "Foodspotting is more than just data. We have an amazing community of people who love food and sharing their food," Grubb said. "We're interested in people pushing data back into Foodspotting." In other words, it wants to Feed its community, so to speak. Chances are they know just the place to go.

Be sure to read the next API article: Add Voice to Your Social Data via QWiPS