WP-API’s delay shows that the more things change…

I was going to write more about APIs and how they are not only the future of data on the web but also the future of data in real estate. APIs – in particular a flavor called REST API – allow for a universal way for devices, websites and databases to talk to each other seamlessly and connect users and content creators in new ways.

Instead, let’s look first at the difficulty of actually getting there.  I’ve been watching the efforts of WordPress contributors to create an API. The most promising one, WP-API, was on its way toward wide release to the public until it got stalled by a heated controversy over when and whether it should be released in its current state.

Why APIs are cool

Image where one single website can 1) set up a frontend to advertise itself, 2) have a blog with posts, features, tags, and pagination, 3) offer a Content Delivery Network for speedy download of images, videos and sound files, 4) serve up a mobile app for your iPhone, Android, or whatever, and 5) offer tools to let you just about live out of your computer or phone.

This technology exists, of course, and is widely used. However it is inefficient and inconsistent. It may hog memory and bandwidth resources. It may be slow and expensive to develop and bring to market, as developers are required to master a slew of languages, frameworks, and networking tools.

REST API promises to simplify all that with a universal language for sharing data. However it is not so simple in practice. Large institutions and mature software solutions may be forced to rethink their very identities. Later we’ll talk about a large institution – real estate – but today let’s look at a mature software solution running more than a quarter of the world’s websites: WordPress.

How WordPress got stuck

WordPress agreed last year to integrate WP-API into its core, which seems to be a recognition that WordPress needs a presence in the API world in order to maintain its dominance. In the beginning of 2016, a fierce controversy broke out within development circles over whether WP-API should be released right away with some work remaining to be done or whether it should be held until it is completely finished.

WP-API delay on Twitter

Without taking sides in this highly political debate, here is a simplified breakdown of the arguments:

“Release it now”: The WP-API team and its supporters want to release it now, even though it is not fully complete. The available features would work, and meanwhile the team will progressively add more features over time. Waiting until it’s fully done could take years.

“Wait until it’s done”: WordPress leadership and its supporters don’t want to release something that is incomplete and that may cause future WordPress installs to break. They want to “get it right” and prevent buggy software from driving users away.

“Why do this at all?”: A handful of developers are questioning why this is being done at all. One in particular argues that a use case has not even been laid out yet.

WP-API follow on Twitter

Protecting the brand is not for the faint of heart

It seems that the larger questions behind the scenes are anxieties about the future:

“What if we get this wrong – will we lose our dominance? Will WordPress still be ‘WordPress’ if it’s a collection of links to a database and not the usual PHP templates? Will this affect the WordPress brand?”

Those realistic concerns would give any brand manager or CEO many sleepless nights. Fear of the future and the promise of the future are often the same thing. At the time of this writing, the debate continues with roughly two camps trying to find a way forward.

WordPress has grown beyond just a Super Big Blog Solution and is now a cultural phenomenon with a huge audience of stakeholders who are not shy about making themselves heard. In the same way that Facebook users can lash out whenever Facebook makes a change to its user interface, so too is WordPress feeling the pinch whichever way it goes.

The WordPress-driven news site Quartz gets it. Owned by established media firm Atlantic Media, Quartz is making its content available wherever the users are. They want to “put as little friction as possible between us and our readers.”

At Quartz, how do they see themselves? “Quartz is an API”. Not a magazine, a portal, a brand, a content management system, a blog, an app? Maybe yes to all of those, but the API is what makes it all work. This is the road forward.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”
Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark
David Kissinger consults with companies, trade associations, non-profits and entrepreneurs on external affairs, public relations, marketing, advocacy, IT strategy, web development and content.

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