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Developers' New Opportunity — Retailers' Open APIs

timothy posted more than 4 years ago | from the mashing-together-shoes-and-bags dept.

Businesses 45

snydeq writes "Fatal Exception's Neil McAllister examines the recent trend among retailers to provide outside developers access to open APIs — one that promises opportunity for developers to transform retailer data transparency into lucrative business models. But whether the trend lives up to its potential remains to be seen, especially given the hurdles small and midsize businesses face launching programs similar to those in place at Amazon, Zappos, and Sears. McAllister writes, 'There's a definite "Field of Dreams" quality to any such undertaking. Ask any company that hosts an open source software project how many outsiders actually commit code changes on a regular basis and you're likely to hear a discouraging figure. Similarly, just because a retailer builds an API doesn't mean anyone will actually use it. Given the uncertain prospects of return, it can be difficult to justify such an investment.'"

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45 comments

How long? (1)

clemdoc (624639) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605484)

There's always the question, how long the APIs will remain open. They can disappear any time at the retailers wish and you're stuck with your development effort. I'd be wary.

Re:How long? (2, Insightful)

grcumb (781340) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607152)

There's always the question, how long the APIs will remain open. They can disappear any time at the retailers wish and you're stuck with your development effort. I'd be wary.

Indeed.

McAllister writes:

Ask any company that hosts an open source software project how many outsiders actually commit code changes on a regular basis and you're likely to hear a discouraging figure.

His conclusion is that low uptake makes opening APIs a high risk activity. That's as may be, but isn't it equally possible that these organisations aren't successful because they're doing it wrong?

Unless I have some kind of moral ownership stake in the project (such as I might have if I maintained a GPLed Linux software package, for example) what incentive to I have to invest my time? I understand the reasons for it, but many large businesses today are notoriously unreliable when it comes to strategy. Driven as they are by quarterly returns and subject to the whim of an increasingly sociopathic class of managers driven by MBA culture to abstract all decisions into monetary terms, why in the hell should I, the lowly FOSS developer, want to hitch my wagon to their star?

(More accurately, they're asking me to hitch my horse to their wagon, without giving me any say on the destination or even the route.)

There are a few organisations who really get how community relations and management work, but they are a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority baulk when they come to the realisation that FOSS means sharing ownership and control.

None of this is news to anyone here at slashdot. What gets me riled up about this article is that someone who should know better spends his time chiding FOSS for being inappropriate to business status quo instead of explaining to business how they've got to adapt to a new set of circumstances.

But the reason McAllister doesn't want to say that is because he's holding out for a new set of actors in the online world: Middlemen who build out standardised (but presumably proprietary) API and data management services for small and medium businesses so they can keep up with the Amazons and Tescos of the world without having to build their own data infrastructure.

McAllister is, in other words, trying to reinvent the distributor in an environment that was invented precisely to remove the need for intermediaries. My only response is to apply an aphorism from another age of commercially appropriated social phenomena: 'You've come a long way, baby. [wikipedia.org] '

Is it just me? (2, Insightful)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605492)

I'm not sure what kind of applications they expect outside developers to create using these APIs. Is it just me?

Re:Is it just me? (2, Informative)

yincrash (854885) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605572)

I assume they would embed them into existing applications.

Let's say I have an app to look up movie times. I could check to see if the movie soundtrack is for sale on amazon.

Or maybe one of those barcode scanner apps. You could then immediately purchase from the app itself.

Re:Is it just me? (3, Interesting)

WeatherServo9 (1393327) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605902)

It's also useful for cataloging software; I own an insane amount of dvds and blu-rays and keep a list on my computer. When I get a new disc, I enter the upc code (it's also compatible with barcode scanners though I don't own one) and it automatically checks numerous sites including Amazon to grab things like the title, msrp, director, actors, publisher, number of discs, cover art, and other stuff.

Re:Is it just me? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32608572)

I enter the upc code (it's also compatible with barcode scanners though I don't own one)

Considering all of the barcode scanners I've ever used output exactly like a USB keyboard (digits scanned followed by return), I'm not super impressed.

Re:Is it just me? (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32610986)

Do you need an API to do that?

Re:Is it just me? (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607410)

Marvellous idea! That could be useful to as many as three people over a quarterly period. It might even pay for itself before the Sun blows up!

Re:Is it just me? (2, Insightful)

Michael Kristopeit (1751814) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605642)

if they sell stuff, they expect you to sell their stuff to your audience.... presumably for a cut of the profit.

It's not you ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32605920)

You tried to write:

"I'm not sure what kind of applications they expect outside developers to create using these APIs. Is it just ME?"

For the sake of the English speaking world
please learn to write

"is it just I?".

I hope this helps you graduate from elementary school.

Yours In Krasnoyarsk,
Kilgore Trout

He was referring to the state of Maine (1)

ClosedSource (238333) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606056)

you insensitive cod .. er clod

Re:It's not you ! (1)

PrecambrianRabbit (1834412) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607106)

When your girlfriend broke up with you, did she say, "It's not you, it's I"?

Re:It's not you ! (1)

phyrexianshaw.ca (1265320) | more than 4 years ago | (#32608616)

exactly.

English is far from a dead language. it's constantly evolving and changing to meet the standards of communication.

and in this day and age, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH SAYING ME IN THE CORRECT TENSE. as a perfect example: "Last night: [persona], [personb], [personc], and me went for pints at [location]." is just as usable in today's speech as I was.

the reason "I" was grammatical preferred over "me" was due to the difficulty in saying "me" in proper english. "I" is a sharp high inflection, while "me" was considered a low round inflection.

historically: high and mighty people said "I" and poor people said "Me"

C'est pas je? (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32611532)

For the sake of the English speaking world
please learn to write

"is it just I?".

Opposite water, Mrs Slocombe. The subject of the sentence isn't the speaker; it's the impersonal "it" - the same one that rains and snows. The word "me" is perfectly valid in a predicate [wikipedia.org] .

Also: http://www.googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=%22is+it+just+me%3F%22&word2=%22is+it+just+I%3F%22 [googlefight.com]

I hope this helps you graduate from elementary school.

I'll put a good word in for you. Maybe they'll let you in.

Re:Is it just me? (1)

ladadadada (454328) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606646)

The company I work for sells books. One of our developers created a Chrome addon in his own time that looks for ISBNs in every page you view and displays the price for the same book on our website.

No one knew that was going to happen when the API was developed. In fact, Chrome didn't even exist back then. (Although one of the other developers has made a Firefox addon and Firefox certainly did exist.) Companies just provide the API and let the developers come up with the good ideas. They don't expect anything in particular.

Re:Is it just me? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32612332)

Once upon a time, I was hired to build an app that would allow a user to search for a product (in a very specific niche market), and the app would screen-scrape multiple competing websites and report the results back to the user, showing price comparisons across each product.

The screen scraper took most of the time to develop. The app itself was trivial, even on an unfamiliar platform. (I was new to WinForms development at the time, and they required WinForms.) I would venture a guess that you could make a cross-comparison tool and add multiple retailers to it as new API's became available. You could even charge a usage fee for the tool...

Camel! (1)

SOOPRcow (1279010) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605496)

http://camelcamelcamel.com/ [camelcamelcamel.com] Great example. They also have one for newegg, bestbuy, backcountry and zzounds.

open source isn't all about new commits... (1)

Michael Kristopeit (1751814) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605504)

in theory, if the code was perfect, no new commits are required... open source is more about seeing first hand that backdoors don't exist, logic pathways are valid, and the realization that a finished solution requires no further work, and thus demands no continued pricing.

Re:open source isn't all about new commits... (1)

gbjbaanb (229885) | more than 4 years ago | (#32608058)

and besides, how many developers does it take to improve an open source codebase?
I think the answer is smaller than you think.

I know the urge to follow an oss codebase that has a lot of commits, forums and feedback is strong - that shows the code is still being maintained and improved even if that is just bugfixes. A codebase that is stagnant, even if it is perfectly workable, is something that doesn't inspire confidence in it. That's just the way things are.

Wasn't this already though of a while ago.. (1)

phyrexianshaw.ca (1265320) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605526)

I seem to remember this whole idea from a while back, It comes to mind that microsoft was trying to market a product for use between [manufacturers distributors retailers] that allowed everybody access to information of what was going on with the whole chain.

seeing as I can't even think of the name of the solution, I expect it did so well that it got replaced with some upgrade, or tanked.

Re:Wasn't this already though of a while ago.. (1)

eihab (823648) | more than 4 years ago | (#32614572)

I seem to remember this whole idea from a while back, It comes to mind that microsoft was trying to market a product for use between [manufacturers distributors retailers] that allowed everybody access to information of what was going on with the whole chain.

Were you referring to BizTalk? [microsoft.com] It seems to be alive still (2010 beta).

How long? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32605530)

"Twenty years ago, brick-and-mortar retailers were only just discovering the Web as a vehicle to reach customers."

The web did not exist to be discovered by retailers 20 years ago.

Re:How long? (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605616)

The first RFC was in March 1989. The first succesful communication was December 25, 1990.

Re:How long? (1)

danger42 (302987) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606206)

and the first time commercial transactions were allowed on the net was sometime around '94 or '95.

Re:How long? (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 4 years ago | (#32627952)

Commercial transactions were taking place on the net since the 70s. The first spam was in 1978.

Re:How long? (1)

Michael Kristopeit (1751814) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605672)

17-18 years ago it did... maybe they just rounded.

APIs from small/medium businesses (1)

N7DR (536428) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605554)

What I find discouraging with these smaller outfits (maybe I've been unlucky in my choice of companies whose APIs I've used) is the attitude that once the API is announced, there is a disconcerting tendency not to bother to communicate changes to developers who've made use of the API. I generally discover that some change has been made purely by accident a week or more after the event, when I discover that something no longer works properly.

And, of course, there's always the issue that the actual API as implemented often is just-different-enough from the published description to cause one to experience an annoying period of trial-and-error as one figures out what actually works.

Re:APIs from small/medium businesses (1)

mujadaddy (1238164) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605876)

What I find discouraging with these smaller outfits (maybe I've been unlucky in my choice of companies whose APIs I've used) is the attitude that once the API is announced, there is a disconcerting tendency not to bother to communicate changes to developers who've made use of the API. I generally discover that some change has been made purely by accident a week or more after the event, when I discover that something no longer works properly.

And, of course, there's always the issue that the actual API as implemented often is just-different-enough from the published description to cause one to experience an annoying period of trial-and-error as one figures out what actually works.

I get this exact same problem within IT at a Fortune 200, so cry more.

Why a separate API for each store? (2, Insightful)

NevarMore (248971) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605612)

Isn't ecommerce pretty well standardized these days?

You search for an item, you have categories and subcategories, tags, a price listing, related items, and shipping info. Why isn't there a standard RetailML API for this?

Ask any company (1)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605646)

Ask any company that hosts an open source software project how many outsiders actually commit code

http://www.fedoraproject.org/ [fedoraproject.org]

Hm...

That's a special one I think... (1)

FatSean (18753) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605890)

I'm guessing these retailers aren't giving back to anyone like RedHat does.

Please think of the Grocers (1)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605780)

Please think of the Grocers. Stop stealing all their apostrophes.

Re:Please think of the Grocers (1)

megrims (839585) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607002)

Please elaborate. I can't spot anything wrong with the punctuation in TFS.

Re:Please think of the Grocers (1)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 4 years ago | (#32609710)

Retailers' Open APIs

Open APIs in the possession of a group of Retailers. There is no verb in that statement.

Retailers Open APIs

This one actually has a verb.

An "s" at the end of a word does not necessitate an apostrophe in most cases.

Not a bad idea (1)

mandelbr0t (1015855) | more than 4 years ago | (#32605784)

This isn't as bad an idea as it sounds. A good designer can make this happen with very little additional effort beyond the company's own uses. Basically, the thought is "If my applications work with the framework I've designed, then so should somebody else's". True, a designer doesn't think of every possible use, but that's what the design process is about - a feasible object model that supports all of the use cases you can think of, and even some you didn't think about. To me, this is the true power of OO design, that each class of objects is considered in isolation, and methods and behaviours thought of that aren't necessarily required at present.

The flipside, of course, is that your API will be prescriptive. To keep the cost of development similar to only developing internal uses, it wouldn't be feasible to really consider uses brought forward by the public. Basically, you get the "if I didn't think of it, then you can't do it" trap. To me, though, that's the challenge from the design perspective: to provide mechanisms to do things I didn't think of. When someone tells me they've used my code to do something I never dreamed of, I know I've done a great job.

Retailer info on my website = AD! (1)

LostCluster (625375) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606200)

Here's the way this plays out. I find out what you're into by the Facebook/Myspace APIs, then match tha up with what you might want to buy with the store's API... and suddenly every ad on my website is targeted to specific items at the store. Profit!

Use your own API! (1)

in10se (472253) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606240)

If companies actually used proper coding techniques, they'd be using their own API, and therefore wouldn't have to "justify such an investment" in creating one. All they would have to do is decide what properties and methods to make publicly visible and generate a wrapper API (which since the internal API is already created should be relatively easy).

Well, of course. (1)

ladadadada (454328) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606542)

The company I work for developed an API the minute we saw the first bot scraping our prices straight off the website. It's crazy not to. The bots are nearly always managed by someone who runs a price comparison website that drives traffic straight to us. The easier we make it for them, the more sales we get.

The hard-working 3rd party developers are going to get the info anyway by scraping the HTML designed for browsers but it will be hard work for them and it will break every time we re-jig the site. The API uses much less bandwidth and much fewer resources for both them and us and has the benefit for them of always being in a defined format.

Frankly, I'm surprised developing an API isn't the first thing every retailer does after finishing version 1.0 of their site.

Warning: The following paragraph may contain traces of a shameless plug.

A more recent API we have developed ties our products to semantically tagged data about the products. We aren't really sure what people are going to do with this data yet but the possibilities seem broad. If you feel like having a play with semantically tagged book data, the new API is at BibDib [bibdib.com] . (Yes, we have an affiliate program.)

It doesn't have to be difficult to justify (1)

richtaur (1234738) | more than 4 years ago | (#32606644)

Just open up the same API you are using internally and that should reduce the overhead of the API dramatically. I think much of the time the primary problem is that the developers don't have a proper API themselves so they have to build one from scratch.

A good pattern to adopt is: build an API and become your first client, to ensure the API is feature-rich. Twitter did this really well and it's helped to propel their business.

free listings (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32606872)

They just want you to list their crap on your dime.
As a web developer, it's amazing how little I want to do with "the web".

"Open" API !? (1)

paxcoder (1222556) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607080)

Is there such thing as a "closed" API? I mean... talking about redundancy.

Shoping API (1)

gedw99 (1597337) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607742)

hub and spoke design much better.

If google, yahoo, etc can simply work out a common API, then all these retailers can simply implement to that API and then job is done.

How hard can a shopping API be in complexity really !!

Bring products to the desktop! (2, Interesting)

improfane (855034) | more than 4 years ago | (#32607768)

Digital Retail should NOT be web based

I imagine a decentralized social product network. It would be implemented with open standards and by a desktop client. Each manufacturer and retailer produce a catalogue of offered products, downloadable from their root domain ( http://manufactuer.tld/catalogue.xml [manufactuer.tld] )

Your client would aggregate data from a number of manufacturers (product specifications) and retailers (sellers).

It would let you compare products across any axes and produce many different fact indicators. It should be possible to compare products based on multiple indicators at the same time. This way you can do some constraint searching, such as I want a processor that offers a high performance per watt but has the lowest idle wattage, a hard drive that spins slow but offers the best data transfer rate and capacity.

There should be a public issue tracker per product so that users can determine what issues are with thay specific product. In a a category of product such as a car, there would be an issue called 'difficult to find parts'. This may be cross linked with multiple cars. The community can identify a severity of an each with each issue so they too can be searched as another axes. (Find me cars that do not have 'acceleration problems')

The reverse is also possible. There could be a positive attribute tracker, such as safety awards, standards (80% PSU Efficiency) and user created ones such as 'no known dangerous flaws 2010'. Of course the last one would be temporal. A product can change over time or the merit of the award becomes less relevant. When the Prius was released it could have no known dangerous flaws when it was released but then the positive attribute could be reversed when the acceleration problem was discovered. This way one could still search what was possible in the past. And what was available.

This is not a review system, it is more objective as it describes clear attributes for a category of products. Laptops would have 'overheating problems', 'exploding battery', 'battery degradation'. These are common to all laptops, with different severities.

The constraints would be very difficult to identify yourself unless you know what you are looking for. Users would contribute a 'saved search' for subjective product categories. Manufacturers should not have the control over this. for example, there is a difference between a DSLR and a point and shoot camera, a consumer router and a enterprise router. Laptops are a prime example: netbooks, ultra portable notebooks, desktop replacement laptops. All these definitions are up to (the knowledgeable) user who shares his searches.

Take a look at Forum Matrix [forummatrix.org] for a good example but imagine more interactivity with the data. The interface should borrow from Drill down dashboards used by execs.

Hope I've made sense and please contribute.

Re:Bring products to the desktop! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32608438)

Dude. The Desktop is already dead ;)

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