Yesterday, as can be seen from the video, we captured a part of eBay's senior director of Disruptive Innovation Max Mancini's keynote address at eBay's Developer Conference in Boston. eBay made a series of announcements regarding new APIs and developer tools. Among them, the release of two new APIs that developers can use as they look to build applications that incorporate eBay's auction services into their user interfaces.According to Mancini, the first of these APIs is an eBay shopping Web service that makes searching on eBay up to sixteen times faster and that allows developers to easily build "buying applications." The second of these APIs is a bidding API -- presumably to invoke the sort of functionality that a user would want once their search unearthed whatever it is they were looking for.As the organizer of Mashup Camp, I'm often asked to describe what a mashup is. I invariably attempt to win people over to the idea that, in as much as operating systems like Windows, OS X, and Mac are collections of application programming interfaces (APIs) more than they are anything else (and they are -- the user interface components of these OSes barely scratch the surface of their entireties), the Internet is no different. Well, OK, maybe it's user interface elements outnumber the APIs. But barely a day passes without some new API for developers showing up on the Internet. To the extent that the Internet is an operating system and the mashup ecosystem is proving that a collection of APIs doesn't have to live within the boundaries of a computer, I've referred to this paradigm (I know, an awful word) as the uncomputer.
If computers as we know them today are hosts to user interfaces and APIs (they are), the Net is basically the computer's anti-Christ. Traditional user interfaces are being subsumed by the Net's UI (the browser) and the APIs are rapidly going through a phase of disaggregation to the point that what's left is no longer recognizeable as the computer we once knew and loved.
What's even more interesting about this analogy is that just the same way that an operating system's APIs can be carved up into different classes based on what they do, the same exact thing is happening on the Internet. For example, looking at a pie chart (see chart, left) that can be found on John Musser's most excellent ProgrammableWeb.com, you can see how today, 50 percent of the APIs used by mashups are the APIs for Google Maps. Another 8 percent of API usage is evenly divided between Yahoo! Maps and Microsoft's Virtual Earth (4 percent each). Notwithstanding the fact that Virtual Earth is about way more than mapping, how could we not argue that collectively, the three API providers essentially responsible for providing the "mapping" class of the Internet's operating system.
But let's take it one step further and instead of thinking of the Internet as one big operating system consisting of thousands of APIs (with new ones coming online every day), let's just take those classes of APIs and refer to them as their own operating systems. Why not? In the course of requesting permission to reprint Musser's pie chart, I discovered that not only is he seeing the same trend, he's tweaking ProgrammableWeb.com to include specific pages that map directly to certain now-coagulating verticals: mapping, mobile, telephony, shopping, government, and enterprise.
Within those verticals, the arms race is on. It' s bad enough for other API providers that Google Maps owns 50 percent of overall API usage. But in the mapping category alone, that equates to 86 percent. For all intents and purposes, Google's mapping APIs are synonomous with the Net's "mapping operating system."
Salesforce.com, it could be argued, has ascended to be the defacto provider of the Net's salesforce automation operating system (although I'm sure NetSuite would argue that it's clearly not the same landslide victory as the one Google has scored with mapping). In fact, Salesforce.com is almost a better example of the operating system metaphor because of how many commercial solutions are built on top of Salesforce.com's APIs (much the same way applications are built on top of Windows, OS X, or Linux).
Even furthering the notion of the operating system analogy is how, in many cases, the API provider's own applications are being built on top of the very same APIs they're making available to developers (the shining example there being how Eventful.com is built on top of Eventful's APIs).
It's as if to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some other developer out there might come up with a better user interface than the API provider themselves. Think of it like GNOME and KDE for Linux. Or Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera for the Web (although in the eyes of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, the browser should "get out of the way"). Let's say for example, that three or four developers come up with a better user interface to GMail than the one that Google natively provides (for some reason, I have a really hard time using GMail's native UI). If those UIs prove to be more popular with GMail's users than Google's native UI, Google could theoretically get out of the UI business for mail (provided those developers managed to preserve contextual add delivery to service Google's business model).
Earlier this year, when I had a chance to interview eBay's Mancini about that very idea -- the idea of being just an API provider (or, how about an shopping operating system provider) -- and leaving the UI development to the developers out there in developerland, he replied "wouldn't that be great?.....if our ecosystem gets to the point that we're just developing infrastructure and we can let the eBay community worry about innovations in user interfaces…"
That, if you ask me, is the Holy Grail for companies like Salesforce, eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, et alia: to be in the infrastructure business but to let developers be the ones that drive adoption through innovation. Sure, if you're one of those or other API providers, it helps to provide prototypes or something that's minimally functional to get new users started. But when I look at where Google is going with Google Apps (of which Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets are only a part), my sense is that there are innovators out there that will come along and build user interfaces on top of Google's APIs that are far more compelling than Google's native interfaces.
I have complained numerous times to the folks at eBay about the eBay user interface (I even took time out of my interview with Mancini to explain where I think there's room for improvement). As an eBay user, with yesterday's announcements comes hope that I'll be able to ditch eBay's native UI for something far more engaging, compelling, and useful. But for eBay comes a different hope: the one that seals its role as the official auction operating system of the Web.