All about the APIs

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2013 | No Comments

For the big “global market” apps at least, it really is all about the APIs. Listening to the latest “Critical Path” podcast with Horace Dedieu, there are some great and compelling speculations. Episode 76 Google vs. Android is really worth listening all the way through for observations about the current state of Android and Google.

Marco Arment’s post about Google Reader also ties into this. The tide has been turning for some time, but it is clear that the big guys want to own bespoke APIs. Given the famous “openness” of web-based apps why aren’t we seeing real efforts by these guys to create open interoperable protocols for things like Twitter-like messaging? In the old days we’d be expecting such a protocol to allow a single client app to post “tweets” to Twitter, Facebook, App.Net all using the same wire format. Those days are gone.

In Google Reader’s case they had a bespoke API, but all the original content is exposed with RSS, not an API Google control. Thus the incremental value they could add (and revenue they could derive) was minimal relative to their corporate goals.

What is more interesting to me is how this need for control affects the current mobile market. Manufacturers are differentiating by adding their own APIs on top of Android, just like all the handset operators including Samsung did back in the days of J2ME mobile apps (remember the Samsung FUN Club anyone? It wasn’t FUN in any way).

It has become very obvious over the last 12 months that Samsung is succeeding in the smartphone market, and this means Android has a lot of users, but it does not mean that Android itself is succeeding. As has been mentioned before, this is putting Android into a difficult place where Samsung can call the shots as they have all the market volume for Android. This appears to be happening because they are introducing their own APIs and implementations of services and features, moving away from Google services.

Why are custom Android APIs important? Well if you’re a mobile developer with a clue and you need to target non-Apple platforms, the only one that matters is Samsung*. If you want to use the latest features of these mass market phones or provide the users with the experience they come to expect from an integrated platform, you will likely have to use Samsung’s exclusive APIs. This brings us back round to the custom API lock-in of the big net services.

I have no problem with that at all – after all my preferred platform of iOS / OS X is total platform lock in, in both language and API terms. In fact [I have argued that APIs are the killer requirement for a thriving mobile ecosystem] and this is why Android’s low O/S upgrade rates are a massive problem for app developers who want to make money selling apps (separate from large services trying to make ubiquitous free clients).

Handsets need to differentiate and add features over time, and they are already stabilising just like Mac laptops, which see solid but incremental refinements in hardware. It is the software and API that changes more. This time is arguably upon us already with phones – battery life and form factor are really the only hardware variables that will see continued tweaks. The odd sensor hear and there, the odd experimental new input method.

The thing is that everyone creating these platforms knows APIs are critical now. Google pretended that the poor Android O/S upgrade rates didn’t matter, but only because their entire business model for Android prevents them having any control over this. OEM manufacturers naturally tend towards short product life cycles and low margins which preclude long term update programs for existing customers.

I’m pretty sure Samsung don’t even want to build a long term platform, they just want differentiation and developer lock-in by offering custom APIs. Horace muses in the podcast that Samsung may one day have their own developer event like WWDC or Google I/O. I am not convinced by this because I don’t believe they have coherent long term plan for the platform. Its all just about this season’s hardware and appearing to be competitive with Apple. They would likely outsource the setup of this event and frankly I can’t see many people queueing up to talk to Samsung engineers or standing in a crammed room to learn how to code some new eyeball movement tracking API, which is the kind of thing that people pay money to do at Apple’s WWDC.

With the recent ditching of Andy Rubin, it would appear that Google is realising that Android is out of their control now and that they need to move to something new. This is probably the Android/Chrome hybrid that seems implicitly on the cards (it at least feels more likely than iOS and OS X merging).

As Horace Dedieu intimates in the podcast, maybe Google went with Android as an interim solution until the hardware, standards, connectivity and market “matured” enough to tolerate pure web O/S like Chrome. It was after all a peculiarly non-web solution for them to choose, and yet only those with blinkers on would have thought a pure web solution would work for mobile 5 years ago, let alone today.

(*)This was not how it used to be. Before Apple saved us from the mobile operator despots and brought us real smartphones, you couldn’t get an app distributed on any mobile operator’s network unless you ported it to support their own specific set of typically really bad and poor performing handsets like… oh the Samsung E700 (FUN club remember!), Sharp GX10 (screw you Vodafone!) or the O2 X1 (BenQ deserve punishment for that at some point).