Are all 'open' Web platforms created equal?

There's been a lot of talk lately about various Web platform vendors opening up their programming interfaces in order to make their offerings more readily customizable and programmable. Yet Microsoft, which has opened up to developers, a bunch of its Windows Live APIs, is not part of these conversations. Why?

There's been a lot of talk lately about various Web platform vendors opening up their programming interfaces in order to make their offerings more readily customizable and programmable.

Are all ‘open’ Web platforms created equal?
Facebook has opened up its social-networking platform to developers. Google is poised to open its Orkut social-networking application programming interface (API) to allow third-party developers to write plug-in apps. MySpace has been said to be opening (and then, not ready yet to open) its APIs.

Who isn't mentioned in any of these conversations? Microsoft. Is it because Microsoft hasn't opened up its various Windows Live APIs to other developers? Nope. Microsoft announced in late April its plans for opening up and providing licensing terms for several of its key Windows Live APIs, including Windows Live Contacts, Windows Live Spaces Photo Control and Windows Live Data Protocols.

So why is Microsoft seemingly irrelevant to the conversation, when it comes to opening up its Web platform? There are a few different theories.

"I think the excitement about the Facebook platform stems from the fact that it addresses the problem of building publicity and distribution for a new application. Any developer can create an application for Facebook, and the social network will help propagate that application, exposing it to new users," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

"The Microsoft APIs don't address that problem. Rather, they essentially let developers outsource certain features--for instance, a developer may not be capable of building its own mapping service to power some location-aware app, so instead they use the Virtual Earth SDK (software development kit) to connect to Microsoft's mapping service."

Does that mean Microsoft's opening up is less thorough/admirable? Rosoff notes that "Google's done the same thing (as Microsoft) with its APIs."

Even though Microsoft was technically first to publish a suite of Web-platform APIs, it is seen by many (rightly or wrongly) as an old fogey in the Web 2.0 world, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group.

"I think many market observers and developers consider both Microsoft and Adobe 'old school,' and put more emphasis on more recent, pure-play "Web 2.0" alternatives in part because that's where a lot of the market (and investment community) buzz is these days.

However, O'Kelly noted, "especially when you consider the partners Adobe and Microsoft tout at their respective conferences (e.g., between Adobe and Microsoft, eBay, Coca Cola, the BBC, and even 'co-opetition' scenarios such as AOL and Yahoo), it's clear that many Adobe and Microsoft partners are placing strategic bets on Adobe and Microsoft services, headlines and blogosphere buzz or not."

But a programmer with a major Web 2.0 vendor, who asked not to be named, said the playing field itself has shifted but Microsoft's positioning has not kept pace.

"I think it's very important for all of us to understand that when we use the word 'platform' to refer to what's going on today on the Web, it takes on a very different meaning than the old-school 'Platform' that powered Microsoft through the wave of PC-centric computing," the developer said.

"The modern platform thats emerging today in the era of network-centric computing is not, should not, and will never be dominated by a single entity," the developer continued. "Instead, the (new) Platform is a composition of best-of-breed APIs and services from all over the web. Each company has unique strengths, and when they make the choice to enable API access to their most widely know and strongest assets the platform naturally grows."

In this brave new world, "application are free to pick APIs and services from a large and growing platform," the developer said. "They are never blocked by lack of platform functionality because, if there is a weak spot in the platform, it's quickly filled by existing/new companies that are natural leaders in that space and see the opportunity to help flesh out the platform."

Google has contributed APIs in the area of search, video and mapping, the developer continued. Facebook has contributed social-networking APIs. has the best-of-breed book search API, he said.

"The 'Platform' is not dominated by a single entity. The 'Platform' is made up of Best of Breed APIs/services from zcross the Web," the developer said.

Microsoft has yet to figure out what its "best of breed" components are and to contribute those to the Platform, with a capital "P," he said.

And in the interim, Microsoft "needs to grok that the modern platform is a collection of components from all over the Web, that no single entity will succeed in trying to supply a comprehensive offering, and that the API-switching costs are extremely low so that if they ever do manage to contribute a world class component, they can't rest on their laurels. They need to keep innovating and supplying increased value or developers will move on."

Microsoft, for its part, believes it is offering Web platform APIs the way that developers want, making them available under different business terms and permitting third parties to customize them inside their own sites, according to George Moore, General Manager of Windows Live. But Moore also acknowledges Microsoft has a different outlook in terms of which data it exposes via its APIs.

"Facebook gives you access to your social-graph (social-networking) data. We don't do that. We have a gallery that allows users to extend Live Spaces," Moore said.

Moore declined to comment on when or if Microsoft planned to allow developers to tap directly into user's social-graph data like Facebook has done.

Microsoft also has a different approach toward how it allows third parties to participate in the Windows Live ecosystem.

"Facebook provides a nice, comprehensive and unified destination and distribution platform," said Moore. "We're doing this, too, with first-party experiences that can be customized. But we are also doing separate distribution deals, like one it minted with QuickSilver Europe in September, via which QuickSilver, not Microsoft, is acting as the distributor of Windows Live services -- like Messenger, Silverlight and other offerings.

At the same time, Microsoft wants to be the "wholesaler for the development community" with compute and storage services in the cloud, Moore said. This is where Silverlight Streaming and even hosted Office Live Workspace fit in, he said.  Microsoft provides the back-end infrastructure for these hosted services so that developers don't have to, Moore said; they can simply build apps that take advantage of Microsoft's cloud-based backbone.

Microsoft definitely has a markedly different strategy than Google, Facebook and other Web platforms, in terms of what "open APIs" mean and how they're meant to work.  Will Microsoft's more traditional definition of "platform" translate beyond the Windows world into the Web 2.0 one? Developers: See any pluses or minuses in the way Microsoft is targeting the Web-platform world , compared to the approaches its competitors are taking?

(Open for Business. Image by Twyford. CC 2.0)


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