It's a testament to how busy I've been at work focusing on the Contacts platform that I missed an announcement by Angus Logan a few months ago that there had been an alpha release of a REST API for accessing photos on Windows Live Spaces.  The MSDN page for the API describes the API as

Welcome to the Alpha release of the Windows Live Spaces Photos API. The Windows Live Spaces Photo API allows Web sites to view and update Windows Live Spaces photo albums using the WebDAV protocol. Web sites can incorporate the following functionality:

  • Upload or download photos.
  • Create, edit, or delete photo albums.
  • Request a list of a user's albums, photos, or comments.
  • Edit or delete content for an existing entry.
  • Query the content in an existing entry.

This news is of particular interest to me since this API is the fruits of my labor that was first hinted at in my post A Flickr-like API for MSN Spaces? from a little over two years ago. At the time, I was responsible for the public APIs for MSN Windows Live Spaces and had just finished working on the the MetaWeblog API for Windows Live Spaces.

The biggest design problem we faced at the time was how to give applications the ability to access a user's personal data which required the user to be authenticated without having dozens of hastily written applications collecting people's usernames and passwords. In general, if we were just a blogging site it may not have been a big deal (e.g. the Twitter API requires that you give your username & password to random apps which may or may not be trustworthy).  However we were part of MSN Windows Live which meant that we had to ensure that users credentials were safeguarded and we didn't end up training users on how to be phished by entering their Passport Windows Live ID credentials into random applications and Web sites.

To get around this problem with our implementation of the MetaWeblog API, I came up with a scheme where users had to use a special username and password when accessing their Windows Live Spaces blog via the API. This was a quick & dirty hack which had plenty of long term problems with it. For one, users had to go through the process of "enabling API access" before they could use blogging tools or other Metaweblog API clients with the service. Another problem was that the problem still wasn't solved for other Windows Live services that wanted to enable APIs. Should each API have its own username and password? That would be quite confusing and overwhelming for users. Should they re-use our API specific username and password? In that case we would be back to square one by exposing an important set of user credentials to random applications.

The right solution eventually decided upon was to come up with a delegated authentication model where a user grants application permission to act on his or her behalf without having to share credentials with the application. This is the model followed by the Windows Live Contacts API, the Facebook API, Google AuthSub, Yahoo! BBAuth, the Flickr API and a number of other services on the Web that provide APIs to access a user's private data.

Besides that decision, there was also the question of what form the API should take. Should we embrace & extend the MetaWeblog API with extensions for managing photos & media? Should we propose a proprietary API based on SOAP or REST? Adopt someone else's proprietary API (e.g. the Flickr API)? At the end, I pushed for completely RESTful and completely standards based. Thus we built the API on WebDAV (RFC 2518).

WebDAV seemed like a great fit for a lot of reasons.

  • Photo albums map quite well to collections which are often modeled as folders by WebDAV clients. 
  • Support for WebDAV already baked into a lot of client applications on numerous platforms
  • It is RESTful which is important when building a protocol for the Web
  • Proprietary metadata could easily be represented as WebDAV properties
  • Support for granular updates of properties via PROPPATCH

The last one turns out to be pretty important as it is an issue today with everyone's favorite REST protocol du jour. More on that topic in my following post. 

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