August 3rd, 2012

Standards, APIs & WAC

Wholesale Applications Community LogoGigaOM recently ran a piece opining the demise of the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) after only a couple of years on the scene. The article complained that something like the WAC effort is needed and suggested that, given the nature of the industry and the players involved, it’s not likely to happen. However, what the author failed to notice was that the WAC’s attempted solution was way off the mark.

The WAC’s key failure was that it attempted to standardize the wrong thing: the API. This is a common problem that occurs repeatedly. GigaOm readers may recall another example of industry-level standards going astray, summarized in the “Cloudstack-Openstack Dustup” piece from April. I suspect several readers can call to mind similar cases in the not-too-distant past. Such cases usually share a common theme: disagreement on the details of the API.

The solution is right at hand but few see it. The right way to go is to standardize the way messages are designed and shared, not the data points and actions themselves. In other words, the key to successful shared standardization is through media-types and protocols. This is especially true for any communication over HTTP but it holds true for standards operating over any application-level protocol.

We don’t need to look too far to see an example of an industry-led standardization success. VoiceXML was started by AT&T, IBM, Lucent and Motorola as a way to standardize interactive voice system communications. Not long after the first markup was defined in 1999 (a process which took a matter of a few months), the standard was turned over to the W3C for continued growth and refinement.

The goals of VoiceXML were strikingly similar to those of the WAC and Cloudstack/Openstack efforts: defining an interoperable standard that could be used across an industry group. The difference in the case of VoiceXML was that the committee focused on message design and domain-specific details shared by all players. It did not attempt to document all the data elements, function calls and workflows to be used in lockstep by all.

Most likely, the WAC meltdown won’t be the last one we’ll see. But this is not the inevitable result of competing interests in the global marketplace. This is a result of well-meaning people aiming at the wrong target. We can do better. We can learn from successful interface designs and focus on making it possible to consistently communicate a wide range of information freely instead of attempting to constrain systems to a single set of possible interactions.

The future of an effective Web, a growing and vibrant distributed network, rests in the hands of those who would take on the task of writing the vital standards that will make it work. I look forward to seeing more efforts where the focus is on improving communication between parties through well-designed message formats instead of on limiting communication though constrained APIs.

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