Taking the Long View on API Ecosystems

Kin Lane has a nice post over at API Evangelist, reflecting on the some of the commentary of Twitter’s ecosystem changes – don’t forget the Pioneers as he says.

API skeptics always step up and say they are different, that they have core web products, existing business models, etc. Sure, there are differences, but Salesforce, eBay and Amazon have all managed to achieve success with continued investment in their API ecosystem.

Whatever Twitter’s particular reasons for their change (and on balance it seems likely to be more harmful than beneficial), building and maintaining an ecosystem is extremely challenging.

Many companies have been successful however – and success seems to come almost entirely in those cases where the company’s business goals and it’s partners business goals align with API – in other words, there needs to be a clear benefit to all parties involved. Examples include:

  • Amazon’s APIs directly drive sales and earn partners affiliate revenue.

  • eBay’s APIs add millions of high quality listings and for power sellers the automate the drudgery of maintaining their eBay presence.

  • Salesforce’s APIs allowed them to
    expand to feature sets they would not have been able to cover themselves and create a high degree of stickiness for the service – for Salesforce user they provide unprecedented flexibility and a wide-range of choices for extensions.

  • Twilio and Stripe are “API Only” companies – with their API being their main access channel to and for their customers.

  • Skype’s APIs aim to enable the Skype experience on as many devices and platforms as possible and partners benefit from adding the Skype experience.

We’re certainly seeing many APIs now launching that clearly target the value they want to add and align this with the core business of their company – it’s frequently no longer “should we have an API” but “how does an API best reflect our core mission / objectives as a company”?

As such, the well publicized issues around Twitter are arguably due to a larger/deeper shift in strategy rather than just an API strategy shift – the API still serves as it’s major distribution channel but there’s seemingly a desire to increasingly control the final access to the consumer. Whether this will pay off remains to be seen. Twitter needs to be ready for the potential fall out from the move – potentially less willingness amongst third parties to facilitate access to their users, less innovation to reach niche audiences etc.

[Image from US National Archives: Flickr]