Early Winners and Losers of the Platform Wars

Delyn Simons is Director of Developer Relations for Mashery (a ProgrammableWeb sponsor). Delyn previously worked in developer community for eBay and still believes that people are basically good.

A long time ago in Internet years, in a galaxy not so far away, a handful of tech titans in Silicon Valley and Seattle began building business platforms and battling for supremacy. The mobile device and app revolution hadn't yet begun. Terms like "social networking" and "wisdom of crowds" were going “viral". Web services and APIs were still emerging. The Google IPO of late 2004 had effectively slammed shut the Web 1.0 dotbomb era, paving the way for the amazing evolution of Web 2.0 services in 2005 that hit the mainstream in 2006.

Looking back, 2006 was a pivotal year for tech. Amazon Web Services introduced S3 and EC2 in 2006, completely rewriting the conventional cost benchmarks for funding tech startups. MySpace was vying for the most highly trafficked site on the Internet with Google and Yahoo! Facebook was an upstart university and high school social networking site that wouldn’t open its doors to the public until that Fall. Yahoo! was in the Terry Semel era of building its new media empire. TomKat would descend upon campus for Yahoo! employee meetings, Beck would play at its Hack Days, and business models behind newly acquired Flickr, del.icio.us, and Upcoming would happen in time. Google paid over $1B for new video-sharing service YouTube. A 'microblogging' service called Twitter launched as an extremely open developer Platform. Digg was cool. The Zune had potential.

Five years later, it is easier to see now that thinking and acting like a platform was one of the clearest differentiators between winners and losers of these initial platform battles. For these pioneering companies who architected their platforms back in 2006 or earlier, however, the battlefield of today’s full-blown Platform Wars has now changed under their feet. Mobile and location strategies are now as important as social. The app economy has disrupted traditional product channels, enabling independent developers to distribute applications directly to consumers. The product and feature demands of 2011 have evolved, but in many cases the open platforms that developers are using to build applications have not kept pace.

In my recent talk at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce event, “Your API is So 2006”, I shared some top platform trends that companies might consider in order to modernize their services and APIs. Architecting your platform to meet 2011 development standards is one of the best ways you can to enable your company to meet the demands of today’s competitive markets. Thinking like a platform also helps your business prepare for disruptive forces you cannot possibly predict:

1) REST is Best: Particularly for mobile and front end developers, RESTful APIs that include the option of JSON output formats are an increasing trend. Over 70% of all APIs in ProgrammableWeb's API Directory are restful, increasingly at the expense of SOAP. More than 55% of those same APIs support JSON output, with 20% opting not to offer XML at all. Platforms that support modern protocols, formats and outputs enable developers to build great mobile, social, and location-aware experiences for their customers.

2) Chat less, Do more: Chatty protocols are out; push notifications are in. Etsy, Flickr, Salesforce.com, eBay, and Foursquare are just a few of the APIs that allow developers to utilize push notifications instead of constant Polling to trigger event-based client notifications for mobile devices. If you don't offer push, you aren’t making it easy enough to build real-time functionality your users crave.

3) Interactive API Documentation: Long form, technical manual documentation is great for reference, but not so great for trying to get started building with an API quickly. APIs including klout, alibris, posterous, wordnik, and fanfeedr are following a trend of combining testing tool functionality with API documentation. The result is interactive documentation that returns live data to developers, so they can explore new APIs, learn the underlying call structures, and debug methods quickly.

4) The Most Value May Come From Within: People hear the word "API" and often assume third party developers will primarily consume the API. More and more companies, including Twitter, netflix, and npr, are architecting their APIs to optimize for internal and partner value. Company executives who treat and fund their API as a science experiment instead of a core business driver are not helping their companies realize the full value potential of their API.

5) Disruption Happens: Myopic, inward focus is a historically dangerous vantage point from which to address disruptive market forces. From the telegraph and railroads of the 19th century to the newspaper, airline travel, and telecommunications industries of today, disruption happens. Businesses who think like a platform can React to disruption more quickly, pivoting entire business models if necessary. The next airbnb, square, spotify, or skype will eventually happen in your industry. In a world of accelerating industry disruption, consolidation and fragmentation, APIs help prepare your company to take advantage.

Look back to 2006 one more time, then fast forward to the business realities of today. Would you rather be Amazon or Borders? Facebook or MySpace? Netflix or Blockbuster? iTunes or any record label you can name? Best Buy or Circuit City? There are already early winners and losers of the Platform Wars. When you think like a platform and meet the needs of mobile and web developers today, your business is more likely to weather the inevitable disruptions of tomorrow. Prepare to be resilient. Market forces that will change your business are already forming and heading your way.

Be sure to read the next Best Practices article: 258 JSONP APIs: Get Your JSON Response Anywhere