There are a couple of posts written this past weekend about services beginning to expose their services using the Twitter API and how this marks the rise of Twitter as a de facto standard for use in microblogging (or whatever we're calling it these days).

The first post I was on this topic was from Fred Wilson in his post Open APIs and Open Standards where he writes

As Dave Winer has been pointing out in recent weeks, there is something quite interesting happening in the blogging/microblogging world.

First WordPress allowed posting and reading wordpress blogs via the Twitter API.

Then yesterday our portfolio company Tumblr did the same.

John Borthwick has been advising companies for a while now to build APIs that mimic the Twitter API. His reasoning is that if your API look and feels similar to the Twitter API then third party developers will have an easier time adopting it and building to it. Makes sense to me.

But what Wordpress and Tumblr have done is a step farther than mimicing the API. They have effectively usurped it for their own blogging platforms. In the case of Tumblr, they are even replicating key pieces of their functionality in it

Anil Dash quickly followed up by declaring The Twitter API is Finished. Now What? and stating

Twitter's API has spawned over 50,000 applications that connect to it, taking the promise of fertile APIs we first saw with Flickr half a decade ago and bringing it to new heights. Now, the first meaningful efforts to support Twitter's API on other services mark the maturation of the API as a de facto industry standard and herald the end of its period of rapid fundamental iteration.

From here, we're going to see a flourishing of support for the Twitter API across the web, meaning that the Twitter API is finished. Not kaput, complete. If two companies with a significant number of users that share no investors or board members both support a common API, we can say that the API has reached Version 1.0 and is safe to base your work on. So now what?

This is a pattern that repeats itself regularly in the software industry; companies roll their own proprietary APIs or data formats in a burgeoning space until one or two leaders emerge and then the rest of the industry quickly wants to crown a winning data format or API to prevent Betamax vs. VHS style incompatibility woes for customers and developers.

Given that this is a common pattern, what can we expect in this instance? There are typically two expected outcomes when such clamoring for a company's proprietary platform or data format to become the property reaches a fever pitch. The first outcome is similar to what Anil Dash and Fred Wilson have described. Some competitors or related companies adopt the format or API as is to take advantage of the ecosystem that has sprung up around the winning platform. This basically puts the company (Twitter in this case) in a spot where they either have to freeze the API or bear the barbs from the community if they ever try to improve the API in a backwards incompatible way.

The problem with freezing the API is that once it becomes a de facto standard all sorts of folks will show up demanding that it do more than it was originally expected to do since they can't ship their own proprietary solutions now that there is a "standard". This is basically what happened during the RSS vs. Atom days where Dave Winer declared that RSS is Frozen. What ended up happening was that there were a lot of people who felt that RSS and it's sister specifications such as the MetaWeblog API were not the final word in syndicating and managing content on the Web. Dave Winer stuck to his guns and people were left with no choice but to create a conflicting de jure standard to compete with the de facto standard that was RSS. So Atom vs. RSS became the XML syndication world's Betamax vs. VHS or Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. As a simple thought experiment, what happens if Twitter goes along with the idea that their API is some sort of de facto standard API for microcontent delivered in real-time streams. What happens when a company like Facebook decides to adopt this API but needs to API to be expanded because it doesn't support their features? And that they need the API to be constantly updated since they add new features on Facebook at a fairly rapid clip? Amusingly enough there are already people preemptively flaming Facebook for not abandoning their API and adopting Twitter's even though it is quite clear to any observer that Facebook's API predates Twitter's, has more functionality and is supported by more applications & websites.

Things get even more interesting if Facebook actually did decide to create their own fork or "profile" of the Twitter API due to community pressure to support their scenarios. Given how this has gone down in the past such as the conflict between Dave Winer and the RSS Advisory board or more recently Eran Hammer-Lahav's strong negative reaction to the creation of OAuth WRAP which he viewed as a competitor to OAuth, it is quite likely that a world where Facebook or someone else with more features than Twitter decided to adopt Twitter's API wouldn't necessarily lead to everyone singing Kumbaya.

Let's say Twitter decides to take the alternate road and ignores this hubbub since the last thing a fast moving startup needs is to have their hands tied by a bunch of competitors telling them they can't innovate in their API or platform any longer. What happens the first time they decide to break their API or even worse deprecate it because it no longer meets their needs? That isn't far fetched. Google deprecated the Blogger API in favor of GData (based on the Atom Publishing Protocol) even though Dave Winer and a bunch of others had created a de facto standard around a flavor of the API called the MetaWeblog API. About two weeks ago Facebook confirmed that they were deprecating a number of APIs used for interacting with the news feed. What happens to all the applications that considered these APIs to be set in stone? It is a big risk to bet on a company's platform plans even when they plan to support developers let alone doing so as a consequence of a bunch of the company's competitors deciding that they want to tap into its developer ecosystem instead of growing their own.

The bottom line is that it isn't as simple as saying "Twitter is popular and it's API is supported by lots of apps so everyone needs to implement their API on their web site as well". There are lots of ways to create standards. Crowning a company's proprietary platform as king without their participation or discussion in an open forum is probably the worst possible way to do so.

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