Auctions for All: eBay Expands Platform and APIs

Updated: August 01, 2007

eBay used its eBay Developer's Conference held in Boston in June to share the news with what it said is a growing community of at least 50,000 third-party developers.

Acknowledging that 25% of eBay's listings come from third-party tools, Max Mancini, Senior Director of Disruptive Innovation said that eBay is shifting its emphasis from back-end systems that help sellers, to client-side applications that allow eBay transactions to occur just about anywhere. "One of the things that is changing on the web is there is this notion of distributing components so they are more easy to integrate no matter where they are," he said. "We've always allowed distributed listings but we haven't made that super simple for developers."

Since eBay introduced its Developers Program in 2000, members have created 4,800 applications but the majority of these have focused on transaction systems and product fulfillment. With this release, eBay hopes to provide a common eBay experience for end-users, no matter where a transaction takes place. "We see eBay as a commerce operating system that makes it simple to buy things without visiting the site," said Mancini, "That's very different than what you are seeing out there today."

The notion of a web-based operating system isn't new. Google's extensive suite of accessible APIs can also be thought of as an operating system and has played a major role in the development of mashups. Similarly eBay's new set of services is designed to simplify the creation of mashups that include eBay functionality.

eBay APIs

With eBay Shopping Web Services, eBay says it has increased search speeds up to 16 times over the previous APIs and made it easier to for developers to create buy-side applications.

Perhaps the most interesting, the eBay Bidding API, available to what eBay calls "qualified" developers allows eBay bidding to be embedded on any web site.

eBay Client Alerts provide lightweight, near-real time alerts from within any application.

The platform enhancements recognize the increasing use of Web 2.0 technologies to build interactive web apps. Developers can use JavaScript, JSON, AJAX, or Flash/Flex (ActionScript) to interact with eBay servers directly via API, or with the provided JavaScript or forthcoming Flash/Flex toolkit.

eBay has also increased the limit on API calls from 10,000 per month to 150,000 per month so that developer's can more easily scale their applications, without having to engage with eBay directly.

eBay breaks the APIs into two major categories: eBay Shopping Web Services are designed for lightweight read-only search and buying functionality that doesn't require a token such as searching for items, products, and eBay member profiles. These are most useful for buy-side applications that consume public data.

eBay Trading Web Services are designed data-rich read-write selling and transaction functionality that requires token-based authentication such as listing items, retrieving seller status, managing post-transaction fulfillment, and managing eBay user information such as My eBay and Feedback details. These are useful for sell-side applications that consume private data.

DIY API

Monetization is a major focus of the new release. eBay's affiliate system pays out between 50 and 75 percent revenue sharing. Selling tools built on the platform using the new eBay Bidding API can drive traffic back to any web site, not necessarily eBay.com. "Ultimately my view of success is that some developer will create an even better experience than we can and is making millions of dollars in rev share" said Mancini.

That said, eBay is continuing to bring its own innovations to the platform. It recently released a beta release of its eBay To Go widget, which allows eBay functionality to be easily embedded in blogs, along with San Dimas, a rich connected desktop application built on Adobe's AIR (formerly Apollo) Developer Toolkit. While these apps provide a fresh way of providing web services and are perfectly usable today, eBay considers them proof-of-concept apps that it hopes will inspire developers to come up with something even better. San Dimas is particularly interesting because it runs outside of a web browser, providing "core" eBay functionality such as search, browse, watch list, and bidding/buy it now alongside desktop functionality such as alerts and a browsing history that make it look and feel just like a desktop app. Nearly anything you can do on eBay can be done "offline" using San Dimas including checkout and providing feedback. For developers, San Dimas provides a textbook study in how to take web services offline. But San Dimas may prove to be a bit of a double-edged sword. It is so polished that developers may question whether or not they should even bother to compete with it by releasing their own app. Of course, this is no different than Microsoft providing the tools to build a word processor while dominating the market with its own word processor. That scenario is just being replayed as web apps mature.

eBay's other companies joined eBay.com in announcing platform extensions designed to make integration easier. The most notable came from PayPal and Shopping..com. Recognizing that an increasingly large number of transactions are taking place on mobile devices, PayPal recently introduced a new suite of APIs including Mobile Checkout, which allows developers to integrate any mobile website with the PayPal checkout process. PayPal's new Name-Value Pair API allows developers to embed PayPal functionality directly into web sites and applications. Shopping.com said it will delver a completely re-architected API in Q3 2007 with a new interface, detailed documentation, and developer tools. Again, the emphasis is on giving developers the tools they need to embed Shopping.com's comparison shopping into their own sites.

Skype, which still feels a bit like an uninvited guest at the eBay party reminds developers that they can use Skype Extras to extend Skype functionality.

Shopping for Developers

Anything that provides better access to eBay APIs will be welcome by developers but eBay has plenty of work to do in the area of developer relations. Developers, especially the smaller ones that have sprung up due to the accessibility of high-level web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX and Flash/Flex, need more hand-holding from the platform provider. Currently, developers can list their apps in eBay's Solutions Directory and, in true web 2.0 style, users can rate them, but only if they are aware of the Solutions Directory in the first place.

Beyond that, developers are on their own when it comes to finding end-users. Mancini says eBay will get more aggressive both in the area of promotion and in providing reference implementations (such as San Dimas), developer keys, documentation, and discussion forums. While eBay has a long way to go to catch up with say, Microsoft, Mancini is right to point out that the eBay platform provides a direct path to monetization, which may be more important in the long run.

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