A cautionary tale on Yahoo!’s potential API legacies

Yahoo!’s announcement that it is shutting down its Yahoo! Shopping Web Services API should send a cautionary note to anyone relying on the one-time darling of the open API landscape to continue to provide them all the API services they currently enjoy.

Now, I’m not trying to paint a dark and bleak picture of the current situation. But it is fair to say that future of Yahoo!’s API landscape going forward is confused and unclear.

And I say that not as a nay-sayer or doom-merchant – I’ve been a champion of open API’s for a long time now and even supported Yahoo! by actively participating in their Hack Days around the world, building hacks on top of the platform and even famously slapping a stupid sticker on my forehead to promote the cause (which I hear was a favorite slide in the decks of certain Yahoo! executives for a while).

Mash up or Shut up

However the bottom line is this: Yahoo! has successfully dug deep roots in the API platform space over the years, probably more so than any other company I can think of. And if some of these roots are dug up and removed it’s going to leave massive holes in the ecosystem.

The Yahoo! Shopping API is one example that has already occurred. Practically speaking the impact of this particular API is not massive as it was hardly a core API proposition. However, I still remain very concerned about the future feasibility of core services such as Yahoo! BOSS given that Yahoo! is retiring it’s search activities and handing the baton over to Bing. Its not clear to what extent the platform will be serviced and maintained once search is powered by Microsoft.

I know many startups that are utilizing BOSS openly and many more that utilize it covertly behind the scenes – the loss, should it be removed, would be great.

Another example where developers have demonstrated caution has been Yahoo!’s implementation of OpenSocial across it’s many properties. Not only has the implementation been unclear (there isn’t even an official “OpenSocial on Yahoo” homepage) but developer have found it difficult to justify building apps for platforms that could be deadpooled or sold off with little notice.

So where does this leave us?

Well, Yahoo! in it’s current position is probably doing the right thing to trim back the fat by closing under-serving properties (and the API’s that go along with them). But it leaves a cautionary tale for both API vendors and API consumers.

API Vendors need to consider their long-term strategy of what they are propositioning. That big “we’re so open it hurts” fanfare is going to cost you down the road if you can’t maintain it. In many ways, removing an API is worse then not offering it all.

API consumers need to consider carefully the viability of the services they are using, especially if they are leveraging them for commercial use or as an intrinsic part of their value proposition. Look for freemium models that indicate viability, or build agile adapters that can be quickly swapped out to a different vendor at short notice (assuming there is one).

My prediction for 2010 is that we will see a lot of APIs and platforms go dark during the year, especially in the ‘free’ space. It will be interesting to see the fall out from these and the way that startups pivot around the sudden departure of a key provider in their value chain.

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