When the open API changes, look out

“We’re opening our API.” Four words guaranteed to get developers really excited and get instant press coverage. By allowing programmers to freely access the application programming interface for something, a whole wide world of applications and data sharing opens up when a vendor opens their API.

I don’t think it’s overstated to say the entire social media revolution is powered by open APIs. The openness of Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Twitter and other platforms has enabled those services to become ingrained into many creative applications.

Embedded devices have the same opportunity. The entire Android movement means many devices, not just smartphones, have access to the operating system and applications developed for it. Specifications like OpenCV allow applications for vision to be developed quickly on a variety of platforms. Vendors can also choose to open up a specific device for developers – for instance, the folks at Jawbone are in the process of opening their Up API, allowing their data to be cross pollinated with other applications.

With popularity comes a price, however. An open API is an easy target for attackers, and security issues begin to arise as use widens. Innovation begins to suffer as well, because while both the vendor and the developer community would like to do the next cool thing, breaking the API and existing applications can be a problem. Managing the change forward so everyone doesn’t freak out is a delicate exercise.

Freaking out is exactly what Twitter users are doing right now.

A few weeks ago, I was watching my stream and saw this:

As a TwitCleaner fan, I went over to the page and saw the post “Twitter? It’s Not Fun Anymore” describing how a developer poured their heart and soul into developing a very robust application using an open API over several years of effort, only to be stopped in their tracks by a wave of API changes.

But not everyone uses TwitCleaner. A lot more folks noticed that the old web version and mobile app version of TweetDeck are meeting their end this week. Many attributed that to Twitter taking over, having acquired TweetDeck, but the real reason was the apps were engineered around the old Twitter API. TweetDeck has been reborn as a new Chrome-based web app.

Did I say API changes and old API? Allow me to regress. Yes, the folks at Twitter have been very busy reengineering their interface. They post a really nice calendar explaining just what they are doing. That June 11 date hangs pretty ominously in front of the Twittersphere. “Deprecation” is a nice way tech folks have of saying we don’t support that old stuff anymore.

Many have vilified Twitter for these changes, as if it is some plot to force people to use Twitter apps instead of third-party apps. It certainly does look that way until you step back and understand what is at risk. The recent AP bogus Tweet, generated when a phishing attack snatched a shared password from an unsuspecting user and the Twitter account was briefly taken over, points out just how big a security problem is developing.

Twitter responded with a plan to work on two-factor authentication, a way to use a second piece of information from somewhere to allow account access. See that line in the calendar that says “retirement of basic auth support on streaming API”? That has to do with how people sign in to Twitter. Most apps have long since migrated to OAuth 1.0 at the strong urging of Twitter, but that doesn’t stop people from obtaining a password and blasting out a Tweet in non-AP style.

Still, not everyone noticed. Over the weekend, again in my late-night stream:

A LOT of people use TweetChat, so this got my attention. The folks at TweetChat were kind enough to answer my inquiry:

That was the Tweet that went around the world. Suddenly every social media luminary is talking about Twitter killing TweetChat, and the June 11th transition date. Wanna take a guess what one of the most viable replacements for TweetChat is right now?

In reality, many Twitter hashtag chats have become so popular the stream of Tweets blows just about any tool away, the Chrome TweetDeck included. When there are a lot of people Tweeting on a hashtag all at once, the conversation just rolls off the screen very quickly. (There are a lot of people asking about replacement tools, and a couple of claims coming in, and I haven’t had a chance to evaluate any yet.)

But, the screams that “Twitter is KILLING my community!” are now far and wide. It isn’t like we didn’t know this was coming. Indeed, these changes have been out there since September 5, 2012 in fact. Why didn’t developers move? The blog at TwitCleaner gives us the hint – there were a lot of hard, incompatible changes.

It gets more interesting. Just about anything with a Tweet feed is going to be broken, like the TweetBlender on my WordPress site appears to be right now. Who knows how many more third-party applications are going to experience problems this month. This is the risk of going with an open API: things may change.

Twitter has effectively closed their old API and reopened a new one. For anyone thinking social media outcry will cause them to repent … that’s not going to happen, no matter how loud it gets. They didn’t take this decision lightly, nor are they surprised at the outcry. I’m sure some new community-building tools will arise from the ashes, but in the meantime there’s going to be a lot of wailing and gnashing from socialites. Stay tuned.

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  • great post, Don – thanks for this clear-headed explanation of an issue that is all too easy to get emotional about!

    • Hi Tonya. Very interesting that after all the uproar, TweetChat didn’t die a painful death as expected on June 11 after all – the folks at oneQube stepped in and helped reengineer the tool. We are still in the Wild Wild West when it comes to social media tools.

      • yes – although many of the tools are growing up and taking a much more serious approach to providing business value and having a clear use case. Fun times!