LinkedIn just now embracing APIs? Thank the competition, not 'open' thinking

Over the weekend, a fairly significant meme surfaced in the blogosphere regarding's decision to offer developers programatic access to its services through application programming interfaces.

Over the weekend, a fairly significant meme surfaced in the blogosphere regarding's decision to offer developers programatic access to its services through application programming interfaces. Iin his blog entry LinkedIn to open up to developers, my colleague Dan Farber wrote:

I talked to LinkedIn founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman on Friday at the Supernova 2007 conference about Facebook’s rapid growth and potential incursion into his territory. He told me that over next 9 months LinkedIn would deliver APIs for developers, ostensibly to make it more of platform like Facebook, and create a way for users who spend more time socially in Facebook to get LlinkedIn notifications.

Dave Winer picked up on the news, inserting some interesting ideas for the folks at LinkedIn to consider:

It would be cool if they just implemented an identity service that managed relationships between users, and allowed developers to define the relationships. Rather than incrementally one-upping each other by being slightly more open, why not go all the way, and operate an indentity service for your own application and for everyone else. This would put Linked-in (or whoever) at the center of Internet 3.0.

But Mike Arrington clearly questioned LinkedIn's ability to remain relevant in the face(book) of innovation taken elsewhere (ostensibly, LinkedIn waited too long to open up to developers):

LinkedIn helped define the professional networking space, and yet today it faces the real risk of long term irrelevance as Facebook becomes the social networking platform of choice for professional networkers.

FaceBook may indeed turn out to be LinkedIn's grim reaper. But if it doesn't it's not as if the road signs weren't in place a long time ago.  Until FaceBook raced up into LinkedIn's rear view mirror, the company that was most often mentioned in the same sentence as LinkedIn was Plaxo.  Ironically, in the same week that LinkedIn suddenly started talking about APIs, news from the Plaxo camp had Robert Scoble labeling that company as the new "Switzerland of Social Networks." Last month, Scoble posted a video demo of Fifth Generation's during which that company's CEO Jim McNeil at  tells Scoble that "[David Berlind] called us the Switzerland of the Social Web:

It’s now a Web service. In fact you can use Plaxo without loading any software. All to manage your contacts. For someone like me that still has most of my contacts in Outlook the new Plaxo is a godsend. It lets me move my contacts, my calendar data, and other things out of Outlook and onto other platforms.

Plaxo has been offering API-based access to its network for what seems like forever. That fact that it is just now being recognized as a Switzerland has more to do with how Plaxo has canned its existing openness for usage by mortals (vs. developers) than it has to do with the original intentions and culture of the company. That LinkedIn is just now coming to the party is sort of like the way MySpace has flip-flopped on allowing PhotoBucket widgets onto it user's pages. Culturally, this sort of openness just isn't in the DNA of certain services and the people who run them. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the idea rather than, of their own volition, embracing it because it's just the right thing to do.

Case in point?

Over a year ago, I questioned LinkedIn's lack of APIs for programmatic access. Back then, I interviewed LinkdedIn co-founder Konstantin Guericke (you can download the podcast) and wrote:

Nor does LinkedIn have a developer program with APIs that can be accessed and manipulated by developers looking to integrate the site with other sites (in true mashup fashion).  External applications like Outlook and have been tightly integrated to LinkedIn, but the integration has been private in nature and is not through commonly available APIs.  Conceivably, with all the profile data LinkedIn keeps for each of its registered users, LinkedIn could be a profile serving-node into a Higgins-like network.

The reference to the Higgins network brings us full circle to Dave Winer's idea because, as a flexible and open identity management infrastructure, Higgins is an enabler for exactly what Winer proposes: allowing developers to define the relationships between people.

Anyway, the "record" shows that LinkedIn was questioned on the API issue more than a year ago and has pretty much eschewed the idea since then and it's not clear when the APIs will actually turn up (sounds like it could be some time in 2008).  If this turns out to be a bit of short sightedness on behalf of LinkedIn, it won't be because the idea had simply escaped them until now. It will be because the company made a decision to stay closed.  At least until the competition -- FaceBook in this case -- apparently forced its hand.  Competition has a way of leading to clarity in business thinking. The question for you in your business is whether or not you're reading the tea leaves yet.