What is an "open" API anyway? (case YouTube / TotLol)

TotLol is a membership-based site that aggregates YouTube content for kids. What’s interesting is its background story and how it went from being ad-based to almost non-existent to membership-based.

The author’s version of the story is interesting. Harshly compressed: He claims to have created a service that was one of the first on YouTube APIs. Then Google gradually and suspiciously changed the Terms of Use to cut out the business from TotLol. The author claims this is because Google wanted to steal his idea.

So what’s going on?

Is the story true or false? Tinfoil hats on? Hard to tell.

However, the story does carry an important message: An API may be technically solid, but business conditions can still wreck a perfectly good app. As long as the terms of use remain as vague as they often are, broadly co-operative offerings such as content aggregation are a risk.

Some have considered this a story of Google’s evilness. I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s certainly a reminder: A great service company may be an abysmal platform company. The mental model for providing stable platforms for building business is vastly different from providing hip and cool services for users.

A platform is a turtle, services can be rabbits

Somehow, in my head all of this adds up to the general discussion on speed of change and business agility. For example, Microsoft is very much stuck on supporting IE 6 on Windows XP, even up to the forthcoming years when it will be even more massively outdated for the web. That blows, but it’s one part of a strategy that has helped business thrive on the Microsoft platform.

Licensing terms, pricing and product structures have changed, but slowly enough to keep most clients on board. Upgrades are offered and sometimes even required, but in spite of that, the Microsoft platform keeps rolling on. It does so for equipment manufacturers, software companies, training consultants and everybody else. While the Redmond-based economy certainly has its flaws, it’s quite an achievement to actually have that sort of a critical mass – and to have had it for so many years.

Let it be said out loud: Assuming Google actually did all that maliciously, Microsoft could have done the same, particularly in the past years. I’m not discussing the relative evilness of these two companies. There is a marked difference in the service/platform orientation though, and I expect it to play more and more of a role as all the cloud hoopla really hits the mainstream.

December 30, 2009 · Jouni Heikniemi · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Web

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