The Visioning Room

Are Open APIs Opening Pandora’s Box?

Recently, Posterous started a 15-day campaign to encourage users of other content-based services to switch to its fast-growing and easy-to-use blogging platform. Posterous is helping prospective users switch by providing easy ways to transfer content like photos and blog posts.

Ning was the first target in the campaign. To move content from Ning to Posterous, users simply provide the URL of their Ning blog. Posterous does all the work and sends the user an e-mail when the site has been fully transferred.

Another target of the Posterous campaign was Twitpic, a service that allows Twitter users to upload photos to the popular microblogging platform. A post on the official Posterous blog describes how Twitpic users can easily transfer their images to Posterous: just enter your Twitpic URL and e-mail address!

Twitpic was so infuriated by the initiative that they are blocking Posterous’ function and threatening legal action against the company.

The Posterous vs. Twitpic war raises a lot of questions about the future of open APIs. When a business releases an open API for the development community, should it mandate that developers agree to certain terms of use? Should it require developers to disclose how they are going to use the API? Should it reconsider the hooks that are made available? Should it take better care in protecting the core of the business model? Can it still be considered open under these types of circumstances.

Open APIs can be a very positive, beneficial tool: developers can participate in the evolution of a software product and help improve the overall user experience.

However, some companies like Posterous take advantage of the open API model and use it to further their own business. If Twitpic had required its developers to agree to terms of use, would this have happened? If a company is going to open its API, it needs to think about protecting itself and stop blaming clever, capitalizing individuals and companies.

To complicate matters even further, some companies, like Twitter, open the API to the development community, monitor the most popular ideas and features, and then capitalize by making the ideas their own. Twitter has grown intelligently, responding slowly to needs and suggestions provided by the community.

The development community gets little credit for its value-added improvements to Twitter’s platform. Recently, Twitter announced a plan to prevent other companies from running ads in the Twitter stream. In some cases, open APIs can threaten the development community that takes advantage of them.

Will users choose closed software tools? Do they worry how their data might be stored and locked down in one product? Will they reconsider how they share their data?

Is this just the beginning of an epic open apps API war? When search mammoth Google attempts to develop its own version of the best social network, could it extract data from Facebook? Who will be at fault, and who will be smart?

==Update: 09/20/2010==
According to TechCrunch ( the open API battle continues. This time between Tumblr and Posterous.

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