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MSN Kicks Out API Jams

MSN wants outside developers to have their way with its innards.

The company is letting outside developers and Web publishers connect to its services and applications via application programming interfaces (APIs) for MSN Search, Messenger and Virtual Earth.

MSN Search APIs will be open for non-commercial use; MSN Virtual Earth beta APIs will be available free for commercial use, with an option to later add contextual advertising; the MapPoint Web Service 4.0, which underlies Virtual Earth, will be available for a fee; and the MSN Messenger Activity API will let developers create applications that include IM. While Microsoft continues to build out its client/server/software strategy, it will keep its eye on the Web-as-platform trend, in which Web services APIs (define) allow developers and other companies to hook into a company's data and applications.

"There's been such overwhelming developer interest in MSN Virtual Earth, we'll open up to developers a new control for commercial use," said Steven Lawler, head of Microsoft's MapPoint business. The new control will be based on asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), a Web development strategy that allows the browser to make calls to a Web server to update information without having to reload the page.

Microsoft is playing catch-up here. Google first opened its APIs to outside developers in 2002; this March, it launched an official developers program that included software source code developers were invited to use, a directory of Google APIs and an online forum for discussion and peer support.

The Google developers program may have been a response to Yahoo , which launched the Yahoo Search Developers Network on March 1 2005.

In June, both Google and Yahoo announced APIs for their mapping services, allowing developers and publishers to use maps and the underlying geospatial technology. For example, housingmaps.com combines information from Google Maps with craigslist's classifieds to show rentals, home sales and sublets in a graphical interface that makes it easy to understand where a property is located.

Web companies like eBay and Amazon.com have found new revenue opportunities and new markets by offering Web services APIs.

For example, Greg Isaacs, director of the eBay developers program, told internetnews.com that around 22 percent of the online marketplace's listings come through third-party applications built on eBay's APIs. "It's a very significant number, in terms of the impact they are having on our revenue," he said.

The APIs will be available on September 13, on the opening day of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference being held in Los Angeles.

MSN product manager Justin Osmer denied Microsoft is behind the API curve.

"We've been doing developer-side work for nearly 30 years," he said. "We know how to compete in the developer space." The search APIs and some Web services APIs are new, he said, but Microsoft has millions of developers in its MSDN developers program. "We're quite capable and aware of how to do it," he said.

In another Web-as-platform move, Microsoft is expected to release a developer preview of Atlas, a toolset to help developers build Web sites that take advantage of asynchronous Javascript and XML (AJAX). Atlas is being built on top of ASP.NET 2.0 and it's based on functionality that Microsoft originally put into Internet Explorer. Outlook Web Access has used AJAX since 1998, according to Scott Gu, a member of the ASP.Net team.

But Microsoft's rivals have garnered most of the AJAX thunder, with Google Maps being the most admired example of its use. Yahoo's Flickr online photo sharing service uses AJAX, as does MSN's Virtual Earth.

"To write a rich web UI, you have to know a great deal of DHTML and JavaScript, and have a strong understanding of all the differences and design details of various browsers. There are very few tools to help you design or build these applications easily. Finally, debugging and testing these applications can be very tricky," Gu wrote on his blog.

Atlas will make authoring AJAX easier -- and it will work with all browsers; it won't be Windows-specific.

Osmer admitted that it's all a bit of a departure for Microsoft. "It's an acknowledgment that the Web side of things is a bit different than the client side," he said. While most Microsoft developer programs require registration and often payment for use of code and APIs, the search APIs will allow open non-commercial use and, aside from agreeing to standard terms and conditions for all the APIs, he said, they'll be wide open for creative use.

Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry said the API strategy is a small but necessary alternative to Microsoft's Windows platform strategy.

"If you had to rank them, what Microsoft calls the smart client, built around Windows and Office running on Windows, is still the most important one in their eyes. And there are certainly good business reasons for Microsoft for that to be so. [But] ? if you don't buy a thick client as a solution, then they don't want to lose you totally and send you to Apple or Linux."

He added, "Microsoft can be a proponent of Web services and still say that one of the most important end points to consume Web services is a thick client based on Windows."