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Why You NEED APIs to Foster Innovation: A Case Study

    I’ve been noticing some buzz about the newly-launched photo sharing service DailyBooth, and can’t help but notice a trend that seems to happen with nearly every new web service. All newly-released websites seem to have an cycle of innovation that looks something like this:


    1. Release product to early adopters
    2. Early adopters sign up on a whim, not knowing how to utilize the product
    3. More people sign up because of early adopters
    4. API is relased
    5. New, better uses are found
    6. Product starts to refine itself

    Now in case you weren’t paying attention here, the key part of this cycle was API being released. Why? Because API’s mean innovation. And innovation is the key to winning the web app game.

    So let’s go back to the original example of DailyBooth. They are at the “release product to early adopters” stage. If you check out some of the suggested users, you’ll see that all they do is post profile pictures of themselves.

    collage of dailybooth top users

    Is this wrong? No. Is it the best use of the system? I doubt it. But this is a natural cycle of a product: people are just starting to become aware of it.

    DailyBooth isn’t going to become a true powerhouse until it lets innovation (and an API) into the product’s picture.

    A lesson in history: Twitter


    Photo by Paul Snelling

    Let’s go back in time and look at how Twitter started. It began as a pet project for the founders Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone. They didn’t release it with a specific goal in mind, other than as a microblogging service. They wanted to change the way information was shared in a more concise way, much like a text message.

    They received a huge bump in usage at the SXSW conference in 2007, and early adopters started to use the service. Initially the early adopters used the service as a way to update what they were doing (ie. “I’m writing this rad article for Web Jackalope”), as many still do today. Not a lot of innovation, and certainly not that much use. It left many wondering if Twitter was ever going to really become popular, or even useful to the public as a whole.

    But the real uptick in innovation (and traffic) came when Twitter released their API. The API has allowed countless mobile, desktop and web applications to utilize Twitter to spread information farther and wider than the founders could have ever imagined. Here are some of the creative applications that use Twitter:

    • StockTwits – A service for stock traders to find and share breaking stock news.
    • Tweets on Tees – Vote, submit and create T-Shirts from tweets/
    • Trazzler – Tracks tweets around travel sites.
    • Twestival – Find the nearest Twitter festival around you.
    • ExecTweets – Find and follow top business executives on Twitter.
    • … and many, many more.

    This list doesn’t even include the slew of mobile and desktop applications that you can use to update your Twitter status, as well as the countless services who have integrated Twitter into their site (Facebook, Posterous, Tumblr, and many more).

    Now that we’ve seen what an API can do for innovation and overall success of a service, let’s take a look what happens when a company doesn’t release an API or encourage innovation.

    A lesson in history: Plurk


    Photo by hellfroze

    When Twitter was experiencing some major downtimes last year, Plurk entered like a White Knight into the microblogging scene. It featured a fresh timeline setup of microblogging, and many started to jump Twitter’s ship and moved over to Plurk. It seemed like the stars were aligning for Plurk to possibly be the “Twitter Killer”; the new de facto microblogging service.

    Unfortunately, Plurk never had an API released with it, and interest waned once Twitter regained uptime. The team behind Plurk didn’t encourage innovation, and their product has essentially died.

    When DailyBooth is going to get interesting as a service is when they start to become as ubiquitous as TwitPic in the mobile picture space. This means integration with services like Twitter, Friendfeed and Facebook.

    Conclusions

    The Internet has changed greatly over the past few years. The web browser isn’t the only way to access web data, and mobile phones are becoming an increasingly popular way to browse the web. It’s imperative that you make it easy as possible for innovation to happen with your web service.

    Release that API!

    Think how powerful a service could be with hundreds or even thousands of developers making interesting applications and furthering your brand. Make it ridiculously easy to access your data.

© 2014 Web Jackalope