Why API Providers Hate You

Photo by Chris JD

Between the shutdown of Ubermedia and the company's announcement that it will not allow any new third-party clients, the once-passionate love affair between Twitter and third-party developers has finally descended into arguing about whose turn it is to do the washing up. I've seen this happen before.

In my past life at Apple I was responsible for some third-party developer support, and that was the worst part of my job. Not because of the external people I was dealing with, I loved them all and still stay in touch. That was actually the problem, because I often had to be a complete asshole to them. That bug-fix that would save you days, weeks or months of engineering and support time and would be a quarter-day job for us? No, not going to happen. That API you were relying on? We're removing that, with no equivalent available. Oh, and we liked your idea so much, we're bringing out our own version next month. I actually managed to smuggle in a few changes, which helped me keep a shred of my self-respect, but it was spirit-breaking work. Here's what it taught me.

Don't Believe the Hype. Everybody in the engineering team was a fan of what third-party developers were doing with our APIs, and wanted to encourage and help them however they could. Especially in the early days, we sit around with developers and get excited about what was possible, getting their hopes up. Unfortunately our enthusiasm was no match for relentless schedules and bug-fix prioritization, so we always had radically less resources to give them than we'd hoped for. When engineering hopes collides with business priorities, revenue wins. Looking back, I feel most guilty about the way I let my own enthusiasm lead third-party developers on, and I'd imagine the Twitter engineers feel something of that too.

It's Not Personal. When your dreams and livelihood are on the line, it's hard not to feel like it's the fault of the people you're dealing with. Why won't they listen, it's so obvious it makes sense? If you could just get somebody sensible on the phone, they'd understand. You can see this on the Twitter development list as people ask for Ryan to add another point of contact, presumably in the hope that the disliked changes are a misunderstanding. In fact, most external actions like this tend to be very deliberate expressions of corporate policy, even though the messages are often sugar-coated to minimize the damage. Whoever was in that position would be forced to do the same thing by their bosses, who in turn are under pressure from investors. External developers have almost no leverage in power struggles over corporate policies, and that doesn't change depending on who the front-man is.

Never Become a Sharecropper. Take a long, hard look at the power balance behind any long-term business relationship you enter into. Imagine you become wildly successful. How much of that success can you keep if you're tied to one platform, at the mercy of arbitrary changes in the terms of service? What's the track record of the provider?

Sometimes it makes sense – Microsoft were actually awesome to work with as a third-party developer, often-times to the detriment of the end consumer who was forced to turn to external tools for things that really should have been in the OS. For ISVs this was great though, you knew Microsoft would generally avoid competing directly with you, and would likely offer to buy you out at least if they were going to tread on your turf.

Open Wins (Eventually). We go through cycles of reincarnation, as a technological change sweeps the landscape and leaves a few companies with seemingly-unassailable strangle-holds on the market. The beauty of computing that we keep adding new layers of indirection, and sooner or later we route around the obstruction. Microsoft looked unbeatable, now I'd bet the majority of Windows installations are on virtual machines and apps are increasingly running in a browser. Nobody beat them at their game, we all just moved to a new playing field. Facebook is the current king, they've won the social network contest convincingly. But unless they anticipate everything that people want in the future, and deliver it all, there will be applications flourishing outside of their walled garden, and that's where the future will come from.

If you keep that in mind as a developer, you'll avoid tempting dead-ends that offer great initial distribution, but don't give you any real control over the data or platform. Open source projects can be a massive pain in the arse, they're messy, incomplete and often have trouble reaching users, but they're the only foundation you can build anything lasting on.

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