Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Transactional Web

Ok, maybe a double-Z-list blog like this one ought not to start coining phrases.

On the other hand, I started thinking a little about the taxonomy of the (programmable | read-write | 2.0) web.

Three categories came to mind right away:
  • Classic mashups take two or more sources comprising different kinds of data, and combine them in a new UI or tool. This group includes things like HousingMaps (housing from craigslist + Google Maps), or BroadwayZone, which pulls in show info, hotels, transportation, etc., and uses Google Maps to provide a substrate and a UI for working with all of this data.

  • Agent apps take multiple sources of related data, and bring them together to perform an action on behalf of a user. Some are goal-seeking agents, which search a wide space and narrow it down to something tractable based on a heuristic like minimizing a price. Kayak, which interacts with a huge number of travel websites and vendors, and Ugenie, which searches e-commerce sites, are agent apps.

  • Proxy apps take one or more sources of data and bring it into a new context. 411Sync's Kayak queries use Kayak's own API to get raw data that can be formatted for the SMS service. This category also includes RSS (client) widgets, and mobile smart clients like Abidia (mobile auction), Mobio (movies) and, yes, Skip.
Being at Skip, it's probably no surprise that I find the last category the most interesting personally. This category of apps is spawning what I've started calling the transactional web -- it's a flavor of mashed up app that makes real commits against external services. Not all proxy apps are involved in the transactional web, it's just that mobile proxy apps are where a lot of the transactional excitement is right now. Unlike the other categories above, these apps are doing things like buying movie tickets out of a finite inventory, checking you in to a flight, bidding in an auction.

Other kinds of apps can be "transaction mashup apps" of course -- I can imagine a travel web site that uses airline seat change APIs together with, say, SeatGuru, to automatically get your family the combination of seats you want to sit in.

But to do that, and all sorts of other amazing things, more "transactional APIs" need to be opened up beyond the B2B world they're trapped in now. Companies -- and old economy companies in particular -- have been hesitant to open up these services as transactional APIs to the general public. There are some financial and security concerns, but they are not insurmountable as PayPal's successful payment API has shown.

What we need now is for folks like United Airlines to offer the same things via API that it has already put onto its web site (check in, cancel, standby, upgrade, seat change, flight change, status). Each web check-in helps the airline, and saves it money; the service should be published as widely as possible.

OpenTable blazed an early path with web-service-standards-as-B2B-infrastructure. But, hey, there are some great apps in the heads of people outside their small group of strategic partners.

Web 2.0 has shown if nothing else that there are more good ideas out there for what can be done with a data set than there are in here. And that the value of the data often increases the more freely it can be used by other applications in unexpected ways. I'm suggesting that the notion of a web-service-accessible data set be expanded to include the real-time seat map of an aircraft, the reservation book at a restaurant, the transaction history and current status of a Visa account, a doctor's appointment schedule ...

All the hard work for this stuff has already been done. When this switch finally gets flipped on, you're gonna see some real fireworks.

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