Most of analysts or observers just do not care, considering open APIs as hacking news. They are wrong: open APIs are questions of survival for social web services.
The war of social APIs
Facebook paved the way of releasing open APIs to provide third parties access to its sensitive data. The open APIs have now become the standard for all social web apps : LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter, Orkut, Plaxo… Twitter would have been a completely different company without its open API which drove the emergence of multiple clients and the integration of tweet functions in almost every web service.
At that time, the Facebook open API was the pillar of a risky strategy.
Let’s get back to the original sin. In early 2007, Facebook adopted this anti-Apple strategy of not keeping the core of its value (people’s networks) in house. Several millions of websites now interface with Facebook to personalize and socialize their web experience. This deep ecosystem is probably what strengthens Facebook the most and what makes the company a long-term leader. To go further (and a little provocative) I would even say that Facebook has a strongest long-term position than Google, because of its social graph.
There are not so many visionaries like Zuck to bet this way. In Facebook’s situation, the obvious by-the-book mainstream strategy (by that time) would have been to keep its zillions of users captive and feed them up with ads.
If you allow your users to go away with their network, you take the huge risk of easing your competitors : someone builds a better platform than yours and siphons your users and their friends.
Another risk is to be accused of privacy breaches. Think about this: when you share your pictures, posts and personal profile with some friend on Facebook, you do not imagine that your friend can give all your data to another web service. This is the principle of social APIs: bring your friends with you anywhere.
Fortunately for Facebook, the privacy debate is close to be over now and the generation Y has no concern for this matter.
Why has it taken so long for Viadeo?
While the use of the API has remained confidential for the latest years (restricted to a few companies), Viadeo executives have claimed it was at the core of their strategy for the last 2 years. The company even hired an API product manager back in 2009. And then, nothing happened.
No one to blame. Building an API when you are a start-up company is easy because you design your database with the API in mind. Unfortunately for lots of 10+ years old companies, your database usually had an original design for another purpose or may be the result of multiple acquisitions, patches, new layers of functions, etc. There are only a few days left before grand opening (28th of June) and I bet their nights are short…
How to gather momentum?
Bad news for the hard working hackers of Viadeo: releasing a stable full-featured API is not the end of the tunnel. The toughest part of the job is to create attraction to this web service : make blue chip destinations implement the API, create web apps and form an active ecosystem. LinkedIn API has been in beta with restricted access for 2 years before being released to the public in late 2009. Then 18 month after its public launch, LinkedIn is just starting to have an impact. Long road still.
My team at IKO System is very excited about the release of Viadeo’s API. As we’ve alpha-tested it during the latest months, we’ve shared the pain with their team. Their API service is now fast, reliable and exhaustive. What they've accomplished is one of the greatest challenge for such a company : revolutionize the data structure of a massive database. And because this service is a question of survival and long-term growth : Champagne !