Friday, January 11, 2019

More 2008 redux: Open APIs

Given the discussion going on around API openness these days, I thought I’d resurrect yet some more text from an "Open Source vs. the Cloud" research note that I wrote in 2008. (See also "Open Source vs. the Cloud Redux” and this twitter thread.)

At the same time, to focus on source code is to focus on a specific type of openness and freedom that was important historically—but may not be as important going forward. Indeed, in the case of Web services running on massive server farms and cooperating over a network with all manner of other code, services, and data, the value of code is questionable. After all, you can hardly just load it up on a server and do anything useful with it anyway. One needs all those servers and interlocking pieces. Also, the ability to view, modify, and redistribute source code is only one of many rights or protections to consider in a Cloud Computing world. For example, consider these other things that might matter more:


Open APIs. Open Source as we know it today evolved largely in the context of Unix-like operating systems and the programs that ran directly on top of them using “libc” and other system libraries. While we may run monolithic programs over the network, much of the action in Web 2.0 has been in services such as Facebook, Flickr, Google Maps, and that expose application programming interfaces (API) at a higher level. This allows developers considerable freedom to extend these platforms. Thus, whether a platform or application is Open Source or not, given public APIs, it can be extended and consumed in ways that are very analogous to Open Source. At the same time, the predictability and transparency of the terms of service for APIs—especially in the case of consumer-oriented services—raise their own issues.

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