Amazon, Google lead new path to Web services
By Margaret Kane
After much hype, confusion and skepticism, a handful of Internet companies are trying to do something that has stubbornly eluded the high-tech industry: Turn the vague concept of "Web services" into a reality for the greater Internet.
Amazon, Google and other Web companies have begun giving developers direct access to their databases so developers can create their own "front doors" and other paths to information, such as book listings and search results. These custom APIs (application programming interfaces) allow developers to tailor such content to their specific needs.
The experiments, which might seem technical and obscure, carry broad ramifications. Their concept turns the idea of the graphics-based Web on its head, bypassing its heavily designed home pages and sending developers straight to back-end corporate operations.
"The biggest surprise to me is that it continues to grow," said Nelson Minar, software engineer at Google, the popular search engine company. "I was afraid it would be a flash in the pan. But I think part of what is contributing to that is that a lot of people are just now learning Web services."
Although definitions vary, Web services generally link servers over the Internet so companies and individuals can share data in new ways beneficial to all involved. For example, a rental car company might share its inventory database with an airline so that travelers planning a trip online could easily rent a car on the airline's Web site, saving time and money for everyone.
To make such arrangements work, developers must be able to write applications that can be easily linked to one another, regardless of programming language or operating systems. Several companies, including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, have been pushing Web services, but the concept has yet to take hold throughout the Internet.
Many companies are beginning to use Web services to link internal business systems and exchange data with other companies, but few consumer-oriented sites have tried the technology on the commercial Internet. While the industry shows interest in expanding Web services, research firm IDC reported recently that full-scale adoption could be at least a decade away.
Microsoft made a much-ballyhooed announcement of a consumer Web services plan dubbed .Net My Services, but confusion from business partners and complaints from privacy advocates thwarted the ambitious program last year. Now, however, the idea is getting new life through recent initiatives, such as those by Google and Amazon, whose grassroots approach to Web services stand in marked contrast to Microsoft?s top-down strategy.
Google is giving developers direct access to its search database, bypassing its Web site and allowing them to design their own ways to use the valuable technology. Amazon has allowed similar access to its inventory database, releasing free developer kits that have enabled others to produce faster searches of "light" versions of the company's catalog, as well as other experiments. Yahoo and eBay have also begun to give developers access to their services, though neither company has made the program available for general use.
"The developers are creating solutions with Web services and sharing with one another. We have discussion boards, they help each other debug one another, post code," said Colin Bryar, director of Amazon's Web services and associates program. "There are actually sites that are directories of Web services using the Amazon API."
Business benefits, burdens
Neither Amazon nor Google will comment about their plans for Web services because they are in such early stages, but both companies apparently think that the idea is worth trying out for the possibility of creating new opportunities in the future. Already, some say, their experiments are showing signs of fundamentally changing how people shop or do research online.
And that, the companies hope, will translate to more business in the long run--for little cost right now.
"In a way, Amazon and Google are outsourcing their user interface development, with the developers working for free," said Alex Shapiro, chief technology officer of TouchGraph, a developer of Web applications. "In exchange for letting others easily access their data, these companies perpetuate their brand, spread good vibrations through the developer community, and allow others to experiment with all kinds of innovative solutions without taking on any risk. In turn, the developer gets to act as the portal to Google's/Amazon's data, thereby benefiting through the advertisement for whatever tangential services that they offer."
Shapiro wrote an application that lets Web surfers browse data through a unique graphical interface, as opposed to a list. The feature has been applied to both the Google and Amazon databases, presenting intriguing pictures of how books and Web sites connect with one another.
Google launched its program in April, allowing
"People have been trying for a long time to use Google as a Web service anyway," Minar said. "We felt it was a good way to provide that."
Another application combines the Amazon service with a Weblogger API to let users create a link to an Amazon product page on a Weblog in just one step.
Amazon launched its Web services program in July. Its initiative is tied to the company's "Associates" program, which allows people to place links to Amazon on their sites and get a cut of any resulting sales.
For Amazon, the allure of such arrangements is easy to see. No matter how the Web service is used, it comes back to one thing: a link to Amazon's product page. Click that link, and the customers using the Web service can then go buy the book, CD or movie they've been reading about.
"(It's) starting to drive unit sales, but it's very early in the process," Amazon's Bryar said. "We're getting feedback that it's a more effective way to drive unit sales. It increases clickthroughs for our associates, which in turn sells products, and the associates are getting more money."
Moreover, if the Amazon Web service becomes the standard for any book-related application, the company's reach will spread even further.
"If people (become interested in a product) not by going to a retail site but by going through a Web site, then the retailer who's under that application is going to capture those sales," said Frank Gillett, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "You're not going to stop what you're doing and go find another retailer to buy the product."