Looking where the Action is in Web Services? Follow the Money
The notion behind Web services is straightforward: the most advanced Websites are not just places to browse, but development platforms that that other developers can tap, But in the past few years, something else about Web services has become clear. Most of the action and excitement surroudevelopment Web services are with that offer financial rewards: to both the companies offering the servcies and the people using them. While debate still lingers about defining the technologies comprising the Web services stack, motivations have become clear: entrepreneurship much more than hobbiest good will is driving application development. Take a look the work surrrounding at Amazon and eBay, then compare it with Yahoo! and Google. Amazon employs a full time Web services evangilest in the U.
"Ebay, at least for sellers, and Amazon for both buying and selling, are very much in the Web services space," said Rael Dornfest, chief technology officer of O'Reilly Media, a California publisher that has has become a focal point for Web services discussions. "Both companies are evangelizing about the technology, organizing development groups, and building out their technologies--because, in the end, the result is increased sales. That's not true with Google, with the possible exception of their AdSense program." Dornfest is referring to a technology that places Google ads on outside Web pages on a pay-per-click basis. AdSense is installed on a page by pasting in a short block of HTML code, making it a modest example a Web service. But otherwise, says Dornfest, "they've been been pretty quiet."
As for Yahoo!, Dornfest says it's too early to tell because the company only began offering its suite WebServices earlier this year. "They are new to the game, definitely in experimental mode and definitely reaching out. They've actually leapfrogged Google in terms of functionality." d,
Tony Jewitt, CEO of The Hive Group, which makes use of Web services from Amazon and iTunes, among others, says that one of the biggest advantages of e-commerce Web services is in the number of ways the data can be extracted. "Physical products have nice 'handles'--price, size, availability, color, megapixels. All this meta-data is useful for building interesting interfaces." He says the metadata offered by search engines is more rudimentary-you can search by text, but little else. He thinks this situation is by design. "While Google has a lot of tagging information, they aren't going to give it away becaused they don't want people repurposing their materials." This is not a criticism, Jewitt says "Google's product is the search and they don't want other companies coming between them and the consumer. Amazon doesn't care as long as those companies sell Amazon's products."
The current mantra with Web services is that "customers build your business for you"--a phrase sometimes credited to Rael Dornfest's boss, Tim O'Reilly. For Amazon, especially, this is exactly the game plan. Amazon remains the quintessential online retail Website: informative, comprehensive, easy-to-navigate. But a layer below are many smaller Websites, less polished but usually more specialized, that amount to a freelance sales force for the mother Website. Web services are beginning to do what Ebay has done--spawn small online businesses that nobody could have imagined would actually succeed. The result functions like a vast R&D laboratory composed of thousands of amateurs. They are experimenting with ideas that would, in many cases, get laughed at elsewhere. Many of these ideas undoubtely go nowhere. But the ones that suceed stand to become viable businesses, fulfilling niches that few people thought existed.
The motivation for the services supplier can be a kind of e-commerce partnership. I'll provide you with services, you use them to sell my products, I'll pay you a commission on sales. "The technology is oriented around commerce," says Jeff Barr, Amazon's roving Web services evangelist. We give out rich product data, starting from product names and descriptions to reviews, images and pricing. We have the Amazon shopping cart, so that developers can initiate product purchases from their site. Our services are meant to help entreprenuers create sites so they can sell products and ultimately they can also earn money from selling those products."
Much of the third-party work amounts amounts to developers coming up with different way to portray Amazon information that the company hasn't considered or wouldn't invest in because the audience is too narrow. "We've seen the use of technology that we haven't yet addressed--instant messaging, for example," says Barr. "There's a product that lets you navigate through the catalog by sending messages to a messaging server. There are products that serves Amazon data on various kinds of mobile devices. And there are vertical sites that, say, present every product Amazon's computer science category, or every science fiction book. The data may be organizeed, indexed, sorted and presented in different ways that might make sense to a particular audience. We don't try to do that ourselves because we're trying to optimize for the broader population. It doesn't have to be complicated. I might just have a blog where I list the books I like, the music I've listened to."
One developer has built a comparison shopping site for purchasing cameras. You select the cameras you'd like to evaluate, hit some check boxes, press the compare button, and it generates a customized comparison. Tony Jewitt's company takes a more exotic approach. The Hive Group's software converts Web data into "tree-maps" that represent product and rectangular array of boxes. The location, size and color of each box represents an attribute (i.
"Amazon has done a nice job with their Web Services interface, making it convenient for developers to innovate," he says "The one area in need of improvement is in the quality of the data: they need to make sure, for example, that the pricing and availability information is accurate. Jewitt says The Hive Group's Website attracts about 20,000 visitors a month. That's not enough to live off the commissions, but many of the visitors like tree-mapping so much that they purchase the software to use internally. Customers include ChevronTexaco, Proctor & Gamble, and the U.
Amazon is also experimenting in beta with two services that don't tie directly with e-commerce. While both are currently free, Amazon hopes to charge, though the details have yet to be worked out. The first is Amazon Simple Queue Service, lets developer create a first-in-first-out queeue on an Amazon server. It would allow, for example, applications around the world to communicate with each other using the Amazon server as the central meeting point. The second project is Alexa Web Information Service, which provides (or will provide) constantly updated statistics on the Internet. Proposed services include URL traffic rankings and site statistics service, a "Web Map" service that delivers a list of links within a URL, as well as links that point to it; and a meta data service that returns size, checksum and other data.
Also proposed: a service that accepts Web category names and retuns a list of the top sites under that cagagory. The services tap the Open Directory (www.
Amazon's Web services competitor: eBay
In the U.
The difference between Amazon and eBay's Web services programs reflects a fundamental difference between the two companies. Amazon is primarily recruiting and rewarding a volunteer sales force to sell Amazon and affiliate goods. By contrast, Ebay's entire business model is already made up of volunteers who sell their own goods. With Amazon, the company makes the sale and you get a commission. With eBay, you make the sale and, through auction fees, you pay eBay a commission. This difference even shows up in the respective pitches to Web services develpers:
Web Services can be used to make your site content more fresh and dynamic, thus helping you to earn more referral fees."
- "It's a dog eat dog world and you need every advantage you can get."
Greg Isaacs, director of eBay Developer's program, says that the "bread and butter" of developer applications are auction management tools, which are primarily used by high-volume traders. They do everything from check inventory, to customize check-out, to calculate shipping and analyze eBay marketplace trends. There are currently some 200 applications, all listed at Solutions.
A few developers are working on ways to access eBay other devices besides a PC. For example, says Isaacs, eBay has investigated bidding via interactive television. "We've built a proof-of concept application for Tivo devices and open sourced it, hoping that a third-party developer will use the code to build their own commercial application." Bonfire Media's PocketAuctions for eBay allows people to place and track bids over cell phone. According to Bonfire's architect developer Chris Chan, the application took about four months to complete using an earlier version eBay's XML API and runs under J2ME. Bonfire shares revenues with the cell phone carriers who actually sell the package, but, unlike eBay affiliates, does not earn commissions when users place a bid.
eBay charges for use of its Web services. An "Individual API license" is free, but limited to 50 API calls a day. "Commercial" licenses are further broken into three tiers--Basic, Professional, and Enterprise--with different useage fees based on the tier. The company has developed SDKs with sample code, integratable libraries, and documentation for both Windows and Java developers. For other languages, notably PHP and Python, the company offers both XML and SOAP APIs. To help developers tes applicatioins, eBay has developed a "sandbox," a nearly fully-functioning test version of eBay set up for developers. (The U.
Isaacs says that eBay is making a big investment in Asia. "We are the number one auction site in Korea, making great strides in China, and are in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Web services program I run is available I all those countries." What about Japan? "We learned a good lesson there," Isaac says. "We were a little bit late and didn't execute as effectively as we would have liked to, so a few years ago we exited the market. But we are always looking at new Japanese opportunities. "
Yahoo!-quieter, gentler Web services
As O'Reilly's Rael Dornfest points out, Yahoo! has come much later to the Web services business, and, so far, its program is comparatively modest. While the company provides a rich mix of financial, news, and entertainment data, its Web services are strictly related to search--Web, news, regional, images, and video. The services are free, and if you build an application that make use of them, that application must also be free, unless you get special permission. For each service, Yahoo! imposes useage limits on the number of allowable API calls within a 24-hour period. Yahoo! alao limits the response for most services to 50 results per query. All requesting applications must have a registered ID.
Applications employing Yahoo! services include a simple search engine for mobile phones, a key word tracker showing the ranking from Yahoo!, as well as Google and MSN; and a "hub finder" in which you enter two or more URLs and it delivers pages that link to all of them. (The service was down at this writing.) Several Websites took basic Yahoo! searches and organized them differently. The Yahoo API Cluster tool gives subcatagories for a broad search (i.
Google's Web services program seems all but dormant, with the last release note filed in mid-2002: which is surprising considering the companies prowess in research and development. There are no list of applications and just a single service: basic Google search capability. Whereas Yahoo! limits the service by registered application, Google limits by registered developer, each of whom gets up to 1,000 queries per day, which makes it pretty much a hobbiest tool. Useage is free, with data exhange via SOAP. "They've been been pretty quiet," says Dornfest, who co-edited the 2003 book Google Hacks. "I think they were originally excited by the idea, but there is no direct revenue stream. Google as a company seems more interested in internal development, versus external development." And Web services, by definition, is about the latter.
Sidebar: A conversation with Jeff Barr, Amazon's Technical Evangelist for Amazon Web Services (AWS)
Jeff Barr is the advocate-in-chief for Amazon's Web services. He was the company liason for the O'Reilly-published book, "Amazon Hacks." He joined Amazon in August 2002 as a senior software developer. Barr's website, www.
- What have you learned about web services and how they work from an Amazon perspective?
- That developers love web services. They provide great leverage power, enabling people from their office, house or dorm room to write code that takes advantage of the Amazon infrastructure. Our vision is to let developers exercise their creativity and innovation and to build new kinds of apps that let people have different and better ways to access Amazon data.
- What's in it for you?
- Web services enhance Amazon's reputation within the developer community, because people are going to see that we are providing these services in the first place. The resulting applications give consumers a lot more choices, because they are going to have different ways to learn about Amazon's products. Ultimately, they make purchases, which results in sales for us.
- An important aspect of this is that we've tied the web services into the Amazon Associates program. The owner of that site actually 'wires in' their Amazon Associate ID into their web service request, and the site owner will earn commissions from Amazon for helping that purchase to be started.
- What have you seen that has really pushed the technology?
- We've seen some outrageous things, like the use of use advanced digitalization technologies. There's a company called The Hive Group that makes some very cool, multidimensional graphical rendering tools, and they use Amazon as a neat test set. Recently, a developer built an application he calls Zollage--Amazon + collage.
- [That site, created by Francis Shanahan, creates mosaic-like portraits comprised of tiny images, all gathered via Amazon Web services. Each image reflecting that person's interests. Hence a portrait of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos uses products related to his interests in science, space and astro-physics. Shanahan's work at first would appear to be an instance of a non-commercial application, but each of the collage tiles clicks through to the Amazon listing, making this of of the most unique indexing of Amazon products on the Web.]
- This is nothing we would have ever speced out, let alone built. But when you see it, it's a very interesting presentation of product data. Shanahan has done some neat renderings. He took Stephen King's picture and rendered it using books drawn from the Amazon horror book category. It's an interest juxtaposition of several different kinds of information. And you can buy the books.
- Has most of the applications been done by developers, or has a third party consultancy also arisen?
- As far as I am aware, it's mostly been the former, with a lot of entreprenuers who have the business vision and the technical knowhow.
- Have the tools changed in any way so that the technical know how criteria has gotten easier?
- It has. There are several members of our development team that have built their own tools, which they then either license, donate, or share with the larger community of associates. We are seeing more of what we call "store builders." Some are interactive tools, where you navigate through the catalog and make selections of what you'd like to feature from the catalog. And there are more advanced tools like ASP.
net and perlscript that you customize with some templating and formatting a list of products you'd like to present.
- Have you opened up more of the engine to developers? Have there been more APIs?
- We're on our fourth major release, and with each release, we add new functionality. We often also add new types of data to make the dataset that we return as rich as possible. For example, in version 4, we've added a new field called "product attributes" that returns details specific to individual Amazon catalogs. That means you could query the laptop section of the electronics catalog and we will return detailed attributes, such as the type and speed of the CPU, the memory size, hard disk size, amount of RAM, as well as any other factor you can think of.
- Have you gotten interest from Japan?
- Certainly. We have a web services evangelist in Japan and we have some great applications being developed over there.
- Is the work proceeding in parallel, or is it connected the U.
S., as well?
- They are independent. The developers in Japan have their own creativity, their own agenda for the kinds of problems they would like to solve. I'm heading to Japan in two weeks-there are great audiences over there for this.
- Have the Japanese viewed the services differently than here in the U.
- That's hard to judge. Whenever I've gone there and spoken, I've gotten a great follow-up. I get people coming up to me aftwards and handing me business cards with URLs written on them, saying "I've already built something really cool; please take a look at it."
- Even if the Japanese look the services purely from a technical point of view without any expectation as a money maker, I still think that they will find a lot of appeal to it. I've always found that developers are very eager to know something great about every new technology. They want to be able to genuinely say I know XML, I know SOAP, I know Web services. They look at this and say I can build something real with these Amazon services. I've got a genuine experience I can have, and I could put it on my resume. I can tell my boss, yes, I know these new things. That's universal. It works in every development culture.