Thoughts on the Netflix API Closure

A year ago Netflix announced that they were shuttering their public API: no new API keys or affiliates and no more support. Earlier this week they announced that the entire public API will be shutdown by November 2014.

This is interesting news and its been covered in various places already, including this good overview at Programmable Web. I find it  interesting because its the first time that I can recall an public API being so visibly switched out for a closed, private alternative. Netflix will still offer an API but only for a limited set of eight existing affiliates and (of course) their own applications. Private APIs have always existed and will continue to do so, but the trend to date has been about these being made public, rather than a move in the opposite direction.

It’s reasonable to consider if this might be the first of a new trend, or whether its just an outlier. Netflix have been reasonably forthcoming about their API design decisions so I expect many others will be reflecting on their decision and whether it would make sense for them.

But does it make sense at all?

If you read this article by Daniel Jacobson (Director of Engineering for the Netflix API) you can get more detail on the decision and some insight into their thought process. By closing the public API and focusing on a few affiliates Jacobson suggests that they are able to optimise the API to fit the needs of those specific consumers. The article suggests that a fine-grained resource-oriented API is excellent for supporting largely un-mediated use by a wide range of different consumers with a range of different use cases. In contrast an API that is optimised for fewer use cases and types of query may be able to offer better performance. An API with a smaller surface area will have lower maintenance overheads. Support overheads will also be lower because there’s few interactions to consider and a smaller user base making them.

That rationale is hard to argue with from either a technical or business perspective. If you have a small number of users driving most of your revenue and a long tail of users generating little or no revenue but with a high support code, it mostly makes sense to follow the revenue. I don’t buy all of the technical rationale though. It would be possible to support a mixture of resource types in the API, as well as a mixture of support and service level agreements. So I suspect the business drivers are the main rationale here. APIs have generally meant businesses giving up control, if Netflix are able to make this work then I would be surprised if more business don’t do the same eventually, as a means to regain that control.

But by withdrawing from any kind of public API Netflix are essentially admitting that they don’t see any further innovation happening around their API: what they’ve seen so far is everything they’re going to see. They’re not expecting a sudden new type of usage to drive revenue and users to the service. Or at least not enough to warrant maintaining a more generic API. If they felt that the community was growing, or building new and interesting applications that benefited their business, they’d keep the API open. By restricting it they’re admitting that closer integration with a small number of applications is a better investment. It’s a standard vertical integration move that gives them greater control over all user experience with their platform. It wouldn’t surprise me if they acquired some of these applications in the future.

However it all feels a bit short-sighted to me as they’re essentially withdrawing from the Web. They’re no longer going to be able to benefit from any of the network effects of having their API be a part of the wider web and remixable (within their Terms of Service) with other services and datasets. Innovation will be limited to just those companies they’re choosing to work with through an “experience” driven API. That feels like a bottleneck in the making.

It’s always possible to optimise a business and an API to support a limited set of interactions, but that type of close coupling inevitably results in less flexibility. Personally I’d be backing the Web.

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