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For APIs, Codes Trump Specs

Sarah Thomas
10/30/2013
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SAN JOSE -- Digital Disruption 2013 -- The telecom industry talks a lot about standards and interoperability, but the most successful applications aren't waiting on specs. All they need is the code, according to some major players in the API market.

Operators trying to play in the applications ecosystem have to lead with code, not with specs, Apigee Corp. CEO Chet Kapoor told attendees at the TM Forum 's show this week in San Jose. The TM Forum is, of course, a standards body, but Kapoor commended it for moving beyond just publishing specs to actually working with developers on the code. (See Apigee Aims to Help Operators Monetize APIs and Killer Apps Meet Killer Whale: ORCA Opens Up.)

"Standards kick in when they kick in," Kapoor said. "It was easier when three people got in a room and said 'here's the standard' and then rolled it out. Now, it happens when it picks up momentum."

Kapoor's assertion is that while the market will have different approaches from different companies, the one that succeeds will be the one that takes hold. He would know a little about what works and what doesn't, too. Apigee acquired the application programming interface (API) technology assets from the now defunct Wholesale Application Community (WAC) of 42 wireless operators back in July of last year. (See Apigee Unleashes an API Free-for-All and Wave Goodbye to WAC.)

At the same time, the GSM Association (GSMA) took on the WAC's legacy initiatives and programs, and one of its first acts has been to implement a single sign-on using a consumer's phone number. But, Kapoor points out that the market didn't say, "let's do single sign-on" and agree to a standard. They said, "here's the code, let's implement it. If it works, we'll work with more people in the industry." (See OneAPI & the Global Mobile App Ecosystem.)

"I like the rough consensus on working code as the winner for standards," fellow panel member Adrian Cockcroft, chief of cloud architecture at Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), added. "We've been trying to create an open-source ecosystem around the things we do and get other people to use our code. We have to let go control of it to become part of the Apache standards."

For its part, Netflix has 35 projects on the open-source community site Github. Cockcroft said it's just throwing out code and seeing which ones people adopt. Likewise, the TM Forum has made its newly launched API Zone suite of REST-based APIs available free to all on Github.

"It allows the growth of a de facto standard that causes us not to end up in a dead end where everyone else did something differently," Cockcroft said.

The token telco on the panel, Laurent Leboucher, VP of APIs and digital ecosystems at Salt SA , hedged his bets, saying that it will be a combination of closed standards and open codes that win out. He echoed statements made by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s Margaret Choisi at the Ethernet & SDN Expo that if standards take too long, open source is the way to go. Orange's goal is to look at how to bring together the major players but not have a completely closed ecosystem. (See Orange on the Partner Hunt in Silicon Valley and ESDN: AT&T Calls for SDN APIs Now.)

"If we want to close the gap between specs and implementation and make sure standards don't slow down innovation, we have to promote the use of open source as much as we can," he said.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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TomNolle
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TomNolle,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/30/2013 | 11:25:10 AM
Three Levels of "Specification"
There are really three levels of specification today that relate to interfaces and functionality.  Thre are formal standards that describe them, there are open interfaces whose specifications are public but not formalized, and there's open-source software whose interfaces are somewhat malleable.  

Operators have embraced open source in some areas like Linux, but the open source process doesn't always create the kind of stable release program and application lifecycle management processes that operators like.  You can't replace standards or open interfaces with open-source software; multiple open-source projects aimed at the same general application are often not compatible with each other.

Standards are IMHO proving problematic for operators because they take too long to develop, and so may end up being available only after they've ceased to be relevant.  They may also be incresingly unnecessary because the most useful standards guide interoperability, and interoperability is a function of interfaces.

Open interfaces are what I think the market needs.  Sites like Kayak prove that you can write software to use almost anyone's APIs as long as they're open, and that it doesn't take very long to make the adaptation.  In an age of software-driven networking where APIs replace physical interfaces, all you need is to require that all the APIs/interfaces be open.
MordyK
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MordyK,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/30/2013 | 9:43:11 AM
Re: Open source
Open Source and API's gives you an idea of the actual uses and needs versus simply providing a spec that may never be used or needed. Once you actually get that data converting it to a standard canbe extremely helpful, as long as its a living standard that repeats the process of flexible imorvement and inclusion.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
10/30/2013 | 9:28:16 AM
Open source
Interesting to see this talk about moving away from standards (at a standards-body hosted conference). I think it's just a product of how slowly they move. The open-source community is agile and brings in new ideas. But, for the operators, especially, they'll have to walk the walk and really embrace open source, which is a stretch for them.
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