Amazon CTO Werner Vogels says APIs will rule the world

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Werner Vogels, Amazon’s high-profile chief technology officer, told a packed crowd ofSXSW attendees earlier this month that the rise of open APIs are about to change the way companies around the world do business.  

“For a very long time we’ve been building platforms to help other people be successful,” Vogels said to lead off a panel called A Global Economy Driven by Platforms & APIs. “That’s what our core competency is… we open our warehouse for other people to use… we open our infrastructure for other people to use.” And that model of compartmentalizing a company’s core internal components into platforms served via APIs to third parties, including competitors, will be the model for more efficient creation of goods and services around the world.

The key, Vogels said, is that the API has to be open to anyone. “There should not be gating — no one that tells you you can’t have access.” When you take “unreliable” human gatekeepers out of the loop, Vogels explained, you get an enormous amount of innovation, because no one is held back by the old forces who say, ‘No, you can’t do this.’” Amazon’s Kindle platform, Vogels claimed, opened up innovation in book publishing because it is “a platform for anyone who wants to publish a book, in the past, publishers were the gatekeepers.”

For co-panelist Khris Loux, CEO of Echo, a truly open API needs 3 key characteristics:

1. Programmatic, self-service access: no need to talk to someone or to negotiate to grab access

2. Remote access appears local: the consumer of the resource does not care about the where that resource is, or how its created. “It could be hamsters on a wheel, as long as they get what they need.”

3. Instant on, with the ability to scale as needed.

The end result, according to Loux, could be a fundamental reworking of the entire global economy around the notion of Web services: The whole idea of the corporation would go away, instead focusing on building core services, slapping an API on it, and selling that service — including to their competitors.

What’s good for Amazon is good for everyone?

But is such a “utopia” possible, or even desirable?

Vogels emphasized that a truly open API must be willing to power competitors, but how comfortable are we ceding  control of the platform to one company?

“It’s all fine and dandy until there’s a monopoly,” warned Loux. “Most of us have suffered under these monopolistic practices.” Are we really ready to trust Amazon — or any company holding the keys to competitors’ livelihoods — to always remain open and impartial, without favoring its own products and partners?

Vogels countered that competition to create the best platforms will ensure that no one company could strangle the market:

“It’s so early, there’s so much work to be done, that there will be multiple winners…

“If it’s a good business to be in, there will be lots of companies doing it, lots of winners. If a majority of customers pick us, it’s not my fault…

“This only works with a level playing field where every third party can assume that their data is not shared to Amazon. There’s no surer way to kill the platform than to give preferential treatment to a few customers. Amazon has to be treated like everyone else…

“Do you really think we had a fork in the code that said, ‘Amazon go left, everyone else go right’?”

Maybe, maybe not, but when Loux asked if the audience thought Microsoft had that fork intheir code, hands shot up all across the room! Clearly, there’s still work to do on the trust issue before APIs really do take over the world.

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