The following is an expanded version of the short talk I gave in Oxford yesterday. My original slides follow the transcript.
There’s a new kind of web development afoot, which marries old-school object-orientated programming techniques with the distributed power of the web.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are published sets of instructions for programmatically querying or extending a service. For example, the Google Maps API allows anyone with some development skills to build applications based around Google Maps; the Twitter API allows anyone to build an application that lets you interact with Twitter (like Tweetie or Tweetdeck). The act of allowing anyone to do this is generally thought of as being “open” – as in, open to anybody. While that’s true, in another sense they’re very closed.
The trouble is, if you write a microblogging application using the Twitter API, you’re locked into Twitter. If you want to write an application for another microblogging service, you have to use their API and start from scratch again. The formats produced by each service’s API are proprietary, as are the methods to query them. They’re incompatible with each other by design, because those services don’t really want you moving users’ data around between them. They want users to sign up with them and then stay there – a great proposition for the service, but a lousy one for the users, who have no real way of importing or exporting the content they’ve created.
Furthermore, there are some situations where this one-API-per-service model breaks down completely. Let’s say you’ve joined a social network and you want to check to see which of your friends is already there. The service provider could use a Gmail API to check your address book, but some users will use Hotmail for their email, so they’ll need to use the Hotmail API as well. Repeat for Yahoo, and every single email provider under the sun – there’s no way anyone could possibly write this feature without a generic API that works across all services.
Enter the Open Stack, which is a set of generic APIs designed to provide common tasks:
- eXtensible Resource Descriptor (XRD): allows an application to discover resources and APIs relating to a particular page (for example, an application could check a user’s profile page and discover that they have an OpenID). There’s no point in having open APIs if an application can’t find them, and XRD fills this gap.
- OpenID: allows anyone to log into any service that supports it using the same digital identity (potentially linking that user’s accounts on those services together). A WordPress.com ID is an OpenID, for example; you can log into any OpenID-compatible site with it.
- OAuth: a way to authenticate access to API-based services without forcing the user to present their username and password for that service. Previously usernames and passwords were passed in order to authenticate APIs, which led to serious security issues. Here a user can easily and securely grant or deny an application’s access to their data. OAuth can also be used to apply granular access controls to a piece of data.
- Activity Streams: a way to broadcast your activity on each service (for example ‘Ben has published a blog post’, a la Facebook’s river) so that it can be aggregated at a central point.
- Portable Contacts: a simple way to transmit collections of contacts, like email address books and lists of friends, between services.
- OpenSocial: provides a framework for hosting remote application widgets on a service.
In programming jargon, a stack is a specific data or platform structure; actually, this is more of a pile of useful technologies that can (in part) be used together.
These generic APIs allow for a more distributed kind of web application. Suddenly, instead of writing support for a particular function from scratch, you can pick up an existing code library and slot it in. You can interact with any service that supports them without writing any further code.
A second issue is a user’s control over their data. When BensFabApp.com sends data to AppOfEvil.com, it may get cached and duplicated. What happens if I delete the original data on BensFabApp.com? So far in the open stack there is nothing to handle deletion of content. It’s a fair argument that when something is published publicly you lose control over its distribution; however, if access has been limited using OAuth or another method, there’s no way of reaching out an ensuring its removal from every system it’s been sent to. That would be fine if the data had been sent to another person or application with the user’s express permission, because they’ll be aware of the implications. However, if it’s been sent completely behind the scenes, they have no way of knowing that it was sent to begin with.
These are issues with any API-based service, but generalized APIs are likely to be used more frequently. Solutions to all of these problems will be found, but it’s important to note that they’re not there yet – which serves as a warning to applications developers and an opportunity for anyone who wants to step up and provide them. As this kind of open API becomes commonplace, new kinds of web applications will begin to emerge as developers spend less time reinventing the wheel and more time innovating. It’s just one of the things that makes the web as a platform so exciting to work with.