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Updated: August 30, 2009 02:26 IST

Taking API revolution forward

Deepa Kurup
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A Facebook user edits his privacy settings in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: AP
AP A Facebook user edits his privacy settings in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: AP

Sharing has never been this easy. Today your Internet surfing patterns are linked to your social networking profiles, and your social media applications are very much part of your online avatar. So when did blogs and social networking sites make that transition from being platforms to publish or interact to supporting a flurry of web activities?

The growth of the Web 2.0 is inextricably linked to a trend: an increase in the open web APIs (application programming interface). Using the API, developers could build applications surrounding existing services. This, in turn, enabled services such as Facebook, Google, or Twitter to go places far beyond their imagination.

Twitter, for example, started with a simple service asking a simpler question, “What are you doing?” to be answered in just 140 characters. Its open API took it from being a micro-blog to a marketing tool, to a news service, to now being a popular vehicle of information dissemination. Because API was available, Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck or Twhirl also sprang up around it.

Similarly Facebook (FB), which released its open stream API in April, saw tremendous application development with 3,50,000 applications created and 15,000 websites using FB Connect.

For instance, each story/link published to FB generates 0.5 to 2 clicks back to the publishing site, points out Vishu Gupta, an engineer at Facebook. “Connect improves user experience, and the site benefits greatly, as it reaches out to more people and can be used to understand user demographics,” Mr. Gupta explains.

However, services that provide APIs today walk a one-way street — that is, while a user can publish his blog on FB, the converse is not possible.

“This has to change to take this success story forward,” says Kishore Bhargava, president of the Indian Linux Users Group, Delhi. “Though API is very much part of the Open Source philosophy, today APIs only enhance the product as envisioned by the developer. Why, for example, can I not use the same service and share data seamlessly across my phone, laptop and PDAs,” he asks.

The next big step is to look at open standards, so that portability of data between hardware and websites or services is possible.

Even as more APIs are opened up — to the benefit of users, developers, and portal owners — seamless data portability continues to be an issue.

In the larger context of the web, these applications fragment user data and the value they derive from it. For instance, if your social networking site were to wind up or migrate to a different privacy model, would you have the option of extracting your contacts, data, or media and moving on?

Currently your postings, pictures or wall musings are all on a one-way trip to the site that locks in your data, and denies you any control, except for deleting it.

As more services move online, open data and interoperability across applications are the larger issues.

The debate on the openness of social networks and the need to define or protect users’ rights to web data has been hotting up. The Data Portability movement, and formats such as OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial attempt to create non-proprietary, open and interoperable blocks to liberate the social web space, so you don’t have to reinvent yourself every time you discover a new network.


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