August 16, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
From Web page to Web platform
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the documentation and tools needed to pull data from Web sites and to combine it with another information source to create something new. The effect is to put a great deal of power in the hands of outside individuals and to transform Web sites into programmable machines.
"Every site now is essentially fair game to go in, modify the site, change it, append it, trim it down," said Jeff Barr, a Web services evangelist at Amazon.
One factor in the burst of creativity is that publicly published APIs obviate the need for two Web properties to negotiate and cooperate in order to share information.In some cases, though, APIs are not well-documented or accessible, which means that programmers need to do more work. Still, advances in development technology, such as freely available scripting tools, are lowering the skill level required to build Web applications. Today, the XML-based protocols required to access data are standardized and well known. Scripting languages and frameworks, many of which are available for free, give individuals access to powerful tools.
In addition, a Firefox Web browser add-on, called GreaseMonkey, lets script writers change a Web site's presentation. Developers are encouraged to share scripts and push the limits of customization.
"The really progressive companies will look at this and say, 'There must be something valuable in our organization, if developers are willing to reach inside and extract it for themselves. Let's figure out a way to work with those folks,'" Barr said.Opening up
With the success of Google and Amazon's programs before them, some Web start-ups are making developer involvement a central part of their business plan. Photo-sharing site Flickr and social-networking service 43 Things both publish APIs, for example.
In the case of Flickr, which was acquired by Yahoo in March, customers can find specialized tools to search through photos based on tags, or can sign up to get an e-mail notification when a change is made to a Flick page the customer subscribes to.
For its part, 43Things encourages developers to customize its service by giving them fine-grained control over the information the social networking site generates.
This all adds up to a shift in the Web. In effect, the nature of what a site can be has changed. Rather than being part of a publishing system, Web sites are becoming programmable, much like a PC's operating system.
Still, the experience of Holovaty at Chicagocrime.org indicates how the potential of the Web as a development platform is still in the early days. The GoogleMaps APIs were not fully documented when he started building the application, which created more work for him.
In addition, Holovaty has had to "screen scrape" data from the Chicago Police department Web site, or essentially cut and paste data from the site, since its data is not formatted nicely for third parties. "If the police department's site gets redesigned, my scraper breaks," he said.
For some, the programmable Web fulfills some of the long-held promises of the Internet boom. Consumer services, such as Microsoft's Hailstorm, touted the notion of giving consumers access to their data wherever they are. Business would be able to tap into the Internet "cloud" and procure and combine third-party Web services from a public directory, too.
Amazon's Barr, for example, sees the e-commerce giant's embrace of Web services as a sign that that shift to the next generation of the Web is under way--even if it's only the beginning.
"I don't think everyone has fully grasped the latent power of this yet," Barr said. "We're on the very, very leading edge of seeing this happen."
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