Amazon Web Services API

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Tim O'Reilly
Jul. 18, 2002 10:41 PM

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I'm really glad to see Amazon following in google's footsteps and offering a SOAP API. So much of the industry emphasis in web services has turned to EAI and B2B type applications that a lot of people miss the real transformation that is happening.

Once they have SOAP or XML-RPC (or REST-style) APIs, web-facing databases become program components. You can see this best in BookWatch Plus, a service that combines the Amazon and Google APIs, plus the existing BookWatch service.

I am proud to say I played a small role in getting this API off the ground. Inspired by the ever-prescient Jon Udell, I started talking up web services back in my March 2000 JavaOne keynote. I was fascinated with Jon's idea that web services could do for the internet what the shell and pipes did for the Unix command line -- create a loosely coupled architecture in which people could build new functionality out of small, independent tools. But I was disappointed to see that web services seemed to go off into an enterprise black hole (what Clay Shirky calls EDI++), rather than becoming the freewheeling next generation internet programming and power user environment that Jon and I had imagined.

So I started lobbying some of the interesting web sites to start offering SOAP APIs. I hit up Larry Page and Eric Schmidt at Google last year, and while they were noncomittal at the time, they later got the ball rolling. (I have no idea if my visit played a significant role.) I've also hammered AOL's MapQuest relentlessly in public talks, but have never gotten any traction with anyone actually at AOL.

Earlier this year, I went up to see Jeff Bezos with a web services pitch: Amazon isn't just an e-commerce-site. It's become the information hub of the publishing industry. How about giving us some tools for building out services based on that hub? (Some of the tools I proposed: a bibliography generator that could be plugged in to a word processor; market research tools for publishers; interfaces for library catalogs.)

Like every web site owner I've talked to, Jeff had a couple of questions. What's in this for me? How will I make money? My answer was as follows:

  1. Web sites like Amazon and Google are applications. And Microsoft has demonstrated over and over again that a platform strategy beats an applications strategy every time. Once you have other companies building added value that relies on you, you have a kind of benign industry lock in that's a real competitive advantage. (That's why I bet that Microsoft's MapPoint eventually supplants AOL's MapQuest as the dominant resource for geographic information. Unless AOL gets off its duff and supports developers, of course.)


  2. Innovation will come from APIs that support “unintended consequences”. As Bill Joy likes to say, "All the smart people don't work for us." Giving developers a playground extends your development staff, bringing in new ideas and features at the same time as it builds your brand and image.


  3. There obviously are revenue opportunities. As Google demonstrated, you can provide limited access for free to allow developers to play around, but do licensing for large scale use. So when people come to you with heavy duty applications, you can figure out the deal then. A mistake a lot of companies make when entering new markets (especially ones that are discontinuous with the current ones) is to think too hard about where the money is coming from. Disruptive innovations often don't work all that well at first, so you have to give them room to grow before you try to harvest them. The lesson of the dot-com boom is actually the opposite of the one that people are taking. It's not "figure out your business model first," it's "don't get greedy; give the market time to mature before you rush to cash in." (Aside: This is also part of the secret of open source. People do cool things for reasons other than money, because they solve small scale, specific problems that wouldn't be touched by commercial vendors. (These problem spaces sometimes grow into big markets, but they don't look that way at first.))

    And of course, in Amazon's case, there is a built-in revenue opportunity for the existing business. Third-party Amazon-based applications do lead people back to Amazon, where they buy products.

  4. Giving something back to the industry, enriching the soil of innovation for everyone, is good like recycling is good, far beyond the direct benefits you reap. Companies need to think not just what they can get for themselves from new technologies, but how they can enable others. A marketplace is like an ecosystem. The more life there is, the more there is for everyone. It's in monocultures that you start to have problems.

Jeff was intrigued, and told me a day or two later that he'd discovered that his skunkworks team already had a web services API in the works. But he says that without my presentation he "might have done something stupid like shutting the project down."

Jeff came to the Emerging Technology Conference (Building the Internet Operating System) with a couple of his folks back in April, and then Amazon held its own invitation-only web services developer conference last month. And now we've got a second really cool set of services to play with.

So I feel like a proud uncle. A big attaboy for Colin Bryar and the other great folks at Amazon who developed the API. I can't wait to see what other new applications people create. There's a great set listed on Amazon's API info page, as well as an oreillynet article on building Amazon apps from Visual Studio .Net.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.