Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Partially Open Web (Ajar) - The Very Real Threat To Web 2.0

Posted by Tom Foremski - November 30, 2009

Do we really live in an open web or is it only open until some companies say it's not?

Is the web truly open when companies such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc, can close the door to their data, or prop it slightly ajar?

With so many social networks and Web 2.0 applications it helps if third-party applications and services can access each other's data streams, especially if it is users wanting to aggregate their own media activities.

This is done through publishing an application programming interface (API) that specifies how other programs access your data.

But what is to be gained by doing this? Well, lots of pats on the back from the influential geekerati on Techmeme, who love open APIs because they look at the world from a user's point of view.

And there are other advantages, especially in the beginning because APIs allow many other services and applications to flourish, which helps spread your own service.

But open APIs can become closed or restricted at anytime.

For example, Friendfeed aggregates people's blog posts, Facebook activity, Youtube videos, Twitter posts, comments, etc. It does that because it has been granted permission to access user data from all those sites.

Steve Gillmor over at TechcrunchIT reports that Twitter has begun restricting its feed to Friendfeed (recently acquired by Facebook). He says Twitter is trying to "kill" Friendfeed.

Competitors will always seek to restrict their competition.

Of course Twitter turned them off. Facebook is Twitter's self-declared number one competitor. When you own the platform and the protocol you have every right to protect your own arse. In fact they have an obligation to their shareholders and investors.

Open APIs are a key foundation of Web 2.0. Yet this whole industry is being built on a very shaky foundation, one that can be closed at any moment.

If the world of open APIs is temporary then the open APIs are useless.

Why would anyone attempt to build a new service or product that relies on open APIs when that access can be restricted or closed at anytime?

Why would it the web become closed?

Because there's money in proprietary systems. Closed systems make money. It's much more difficult to make money in an open industry standards world.

Look at the PC industry with its razor-thin margins on PCs, while Intel and Microsoft make 60% plus margins on their proprietary PC technologies.

Look at Apple Computer and the fortunes it makes through its closed systems.

It's the traditional way money is made in the computer industry.

Open systems are anomalies.

I remember when email was first out, I started using MCI mail. But I also had to have a CompuServe, and an AOL account because there were no gateways between the systems. It took years before you could send an email seamlessly between systems.

It wasn't because the technology wasn't available, it was. It was because you could make more money by not having a gateway.

There are very few open industry standards that arose because companies agreed, and then only after many years of slogging through a tedious standards process.

The Internet is a collection of open industry standards that succeeded only because the US government financed and supported it. And it still took years to become well established.

But we've always had industry de facto standards. That's because one company eventually won out over all the others, and that's what we all began to use, their standard.

Is the X86 microprocessor architecture an open industry standard? No, it's a de facto industry standard developed by Intel. That's why Intel can maintain 60% plus profit margins.

Why should Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, or any other company with a valuable data stream, promise to give open access, to anyone, at anytime?

It would be opening itself up to competition. It would be giving up a key competitive advantage and a key competitive differentiator.

Where's the monetary value in doing that?

If open APIs can be changed at any time then they are not open, but ajar. This threatens the entire Web 2.0 sector. This is a very serious issue.

Chris Saad writes:

In the end, the only real solution for all of this, of course, is a return to the way the web has always worked (well). Open systems.

He is right.

But open standards will be years in the making, and in adoption. In the meantime, it looks like we will be heading into a closed web of the like that we haven't seen since before the Internet.

That's going to restrict innovation to a tremendous degree.

UPDATE: Craigslist blocks its data from Yahoo Pipes.

Don't be evil, Craigslist - Startup diaries

Yesterday (Nov 30th 2009), at approximately 2pm PST, Craigslist effectively killed all Yahoo Pipes projects that use Craigslist as a data source.


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