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Hey Twitter: API Management = Developer Management

Twitter just isn’t very good at writing client-side apps that leverage its own API

Quick question for you: What matters most, the client or the server?

Answer: Neither—they are really only useful as a whole. A client without a server is usually little more than an non-functional wire frame, and a server without a client is simply unrealized potential. Bring them together though, and you have something of lasting value. So neither matters more, and in fact each matters a lot less than half.

In the API world, this is an easy point to miss. The server-side always wields disproportionate power by virtue of controlling the API to its services, and this can easily foster an arrogance about the server’s place in the world. This effect is nicely illustrated by Twitter’s recent missteps around developer management.

The problems for Twitter all began with a blog entry. Blogs are the mouthpiece of the platform. Tucked away within an interesting entry about Twitter Cards and the potential to run applications within tweets (something which is genuinely exciting), can be found a restatement of an early warning to developers:

“developers should not ‘build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.’”

Ominous stuff indeed. This was quickly picked up on by Nick Bilton writing in the New York Times Bits blog, who pointed out that the real problem is that Twitter just isn’t very good at writing client-side apps that leverage its own API. Stifling competition by leveraging your the API power card can only alienate developers—and by extension the public who are left with a single vendor solution. Suddenly, it feels like the 1980s all over again.

This ignited a firestorm of concern that was well summarized by Adam Green in Programmable Web. Green acknowledges that API change is inevitable, but points out that this is something that can be managed effectively—which is not what Twitter is doing right now.

The irony of the whole thing is that in the past, by exercising its power position Twitter has actually made great contributions to the API community. In mid 2010, Twitter cut off basic authentication to APIs in favor of OAuth, a drop-dead event that became known as the OAuthcalypse. Hyperbole aside, in terms of actual impact on the populace this cut over made even Y2K look like the end of days. Given a tractable challenge, developers cope, which is really Green’s point.

What is important to realize is that API management isn’t technical but social. Win the community over and they will move mountains. Piss them off, and they will leave in droves for the next paying gig.

The thing I always remind people is that as a trend, APIs are not about technology; they are a strategy. Truth is, the technology is pretty easy—and that’s the real secret to API’s success. You see, the communications are never the thing; the app is the thing (and that is what WS-* missed). Simplicity and low barrier to entry counts for everything because it means you can get on with building real apps.

Now I can give you the very best infrastructure and tools to facilitate API community. But how you manage this community—well, that is where the real work begins, and in the end, it is all a lot less deterministic than we technologists like to admit. People are hard to manage, but communities are even harder.

If there is a lesson here, it is that APIs are really about potential, and that potential can be only realized when you have two sides—client and server—fully engaged. Mess this one up and you’re left with just a bunch of unused interfaces.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Scott Morrison

K. Scott Morrison is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Architect at Layer 7 Technologies, where he is leading a team developing the next generation of security infrastructure for cloud computing and SOA. An architect and developer of highly scalable, enterprise systems for over 20 years, Scott has extensive experience across industry sectors as diverse as health, travel and transportation, and financial services. He has been a Director of Architecture and Technology at Infowave Software, a leading maker of wireless security and acceleration software for mobile devices, and was a senior architect at IBM. Before shifting to the private sector, Scott was with the world-renowned medical research program of the University of British Columbia, studying neurodegenerative disorders using medical imaging technology.

Scott is a dynamic, entertaining and highly sought-after speaker. His quotes appear regularly in the media, from the New York Times, to the Huffington Post and the Register. Scott has published over 50 book chapters, magazine articles, and papers in medical, physics, and engineering journals. His work has been acknowledged in the New England Journal of Medicine, and he has published in journals as diverse as the IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow, and Neurology. He is the co-author of the graduate text Cloud Computing, Principles, Systems and Applications published by Springer, and is on the editorial board of Springer’s new Journal of Cloud Computing Advances, Systems and Applications (JoCCASA). He co-authored both Java Web Services Unleashed and Professional JMS. Scott is an editor of the WS-I Basic Security Profile (BSP), and is co-author of the original WS-Federation specification. He is a recent co-author of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Security Guidance for Critical Areas of Focus in Cloud Computing, and an author of that organization’s Top Threats to Cloud Computing research. Scott was recently a featured speaker for the Privacy Commission of Canada’s public consultation into the privacy implications of cloud computing. He has even lent his expertise to the film and television industry, consulting on a number of features including the X-Files. Scott’s current interests are in cloud computing, Web services security, enterprise architecture and secure mobile computing—and of course, his wife and two great kids.

Layer 7 Technologies:
Scott's linkedIn profile.
Twitter: @KScottMorrison
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