Amazon takes a razor to its homepage

IT Priorities Special Report: Amazon.com's latest strategy could see it evolve from an amorphous shopping portal to a collection of lucrative Web services managed by a growing army of external developers
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

"You could almost go to the front page of Amazon.co.uk, print it out and slice it up with a razor blade. Each of those parts is potentially a Web service."

This vision of Amazon's future would undoubtedly cause technical and brand managers at more risk-averse Internet companies to shift uncomfortably in their seats at the thought of precious intellectual property and code fractured and spinning around the Web.

But not Jeff Barr. The man behind the statement, Amazon's Web services evangelist, has a clear vision of the massive potential of thinking of an e-commerce site as a collection of lucrative components, to be utilised as individual services over the Web, rather than as an amorphous shopping portal.

And despite his zealous job title, Barr's vision isn't idle aspiration but based on a programme that has been in existence for over a year and has yielded concrete results and, if Amazon's financial claims to date are anything to go by, concrete profits.

Amazon.com recently joined Google and eBay in making key parts of its database available to developers as Web services which they can directly integrate into their own commerce sites or use to build tools for other merchants to sell online. The creators then take a cut of any sales made.

Since April 2002, when the scheme was launched in the US, Amazon has signed up around 30,000 developers, or 'hackers', and allowed them to download data feeds in XML. The programme was extended to Amazon.co.uk in March this year.

Barr claims that although the number of developers in the Web services programme already far outstrips its own internal programming team, tens of thousands more are expected to join in the future.

"We have got 30,000 developers out there and we certainly don't have 30,000 developers in our building here," he says.

The first fruits of the Web services programme include companies such as Seller Engine, which has built a desktop application that uses Amazon's XML feed to allow companies selling on Amazon to compare their prices to those of other Amazon suppliers.

Another developer has created an entire store on the Web using Amazon's service which looks like a normal e-commerce site but all the selling and search components are obviously Amazon.

But despite all this good work, a growing army of developers, tens of thousands strong, with access to database and brand information must poise some brand management and security risks?

Barr claims the Amazon hacker community has a vested interest in protecting its parent's good name and any troublemakers are dealt with from within or swiftly reported to Amazon central.

"It happens very infrequently. It is something that doesn't happen enough that we could actually keep count of it," he says. "The fact there is a business relationship involved means that people aren't going to build a negative site. The community is also somewhat self-policing. The associates themselves will protect the integrity of the programme."

Making the majority of Amazon hackers a part of its Associates programme adds another level of security checks to make sure that not just anyone can join the club. The programme predates the Web services launch and has some pretty stringent guidelines on what kind of site a company that chooses to link to Amazon can run and how they can represent their relationship to the e-commerce kingpin.

Although Amazon has allowed developers to create sites using its tools it still remains extremely protective of customer data, says Barr.

"None of the services we have will eve reveal any personally identifying information. The current set of services is just a parallel of the information on the existing Web site. So there is nothing in the returns data that you couldn't get from visiting the Web site as an anonymous user," he says.

Much has been made of the two divergent paths of Web services technology: Microsoft's catch-all .Net platform in one camp and Sun's Java-based J2EE tools in the other. But Amazon refuses to enter the debate, or even acknowledge a debate exists, claiming the best of both systems are used internally and by the developer community.

"They are really platform-independent. I really can't tell you what set of technologies are most popular among our users. It could be J2EE, it could be .Net language, it could be Perl, it could be PHP. The really great thing about Web services is that because you have the XML representation in the middle it so it really doesn't matter," he says

The dot-com is historically a fierce protector of its technical architecture lest the slightest clue reveals a chink in its armour to some unscrupulous cracker.

"We never share a lot of information about our systems infrastructure because our security folks don't like to let the outside world know what's inside. There are literally thousands of servers inside our firewall and I am sure that if you dig far enough you will find at least one of everything. We like to work with all different vendors," says Barr.

But there are some technical issues that Barr is willing to go into detail on. Web services, just like any new technology, face the perennial problem of requiring manically competitive IT vendors to cooperate on common standards for the good of all.

"There are some Web services security standards that are really, really cool in terms of spec; they give you an impressive pile of paper when you print them out. But to get to the point where our developers can implement them, we are easily nine months to a year away from that," he explains. "The Soap standard is rather complex," he adds. "Time to time there are interoperability issues. One particular server flavour of Soap isn't necessarily 100 percent compatible with some particular flavour of the client. It's an issue for Soap industry in general and there are a lot of efforts underway to make sure there's 100 percent anything to anything connectivity."

But despite these concerns, Amazon's position as one of the biggest e-commerce players in the world -- with around 80 million requests a week -- and an overall master plan to establish itself as the 'key e-commerce platform', Barr claims it's not up to his company to battle for standards.

"Organisations such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun have the resource to devote to standards. It's a significant burden for an organisation wanting to participate in standards effort," he claims. "You need to basically put a person on those efforts almost full-time, which begs the question: 'If they are full-time in the standards committee, how do they accurately represent what their company needs?'

But despite these standards concerns, Web services have been very good for Amazon. Exactly how good, they're not saying but Barr claims people can draw their own conclusions from the alleged success of the programme's participants.

"We don't tend to give out individual numbers for product areas. I know that individual associate sites that have made the upgrade from being associates with simple Amazon banners on their sites to sites with rich product information on them have each seen very, very measurable returns -- sometimes doubling their actual sales or more,' he says.

Never one to rest on its laurels, Amazon is planning to add to add its last two international sites, France and Canada, to the Web Services programme later this year. Barr claims there is no limit to the size of the developer community it can support.

"We have just scratched the surface here, we are just getting started. Thirty thousand is a great number, it's a lot better than zero, but it's a lot smaller than it's going to be two years from now. I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess how big this thing is going to get. We work with Sun's development community and Microsoft's and both of those number in the millions."

Find out more about Web services in this IT Priorities Special Report:

Everything you need to know about Web services

The state of Web services

Amazon takes a razor to its homepage

Tesco.com cuts development costs with Web services

Editorial standards