I was really glad to read Stewart Butterfields response to the whole Zoomr API key thing that happened over the weekend.
The first thing I thought of when hearing about the hub-bub first on Tom the Architects blog and then on yesterdays Geek News Central (I’m a little behind lately) was the article Strategy III: Let Me Go Back by Joel Spolsky. I think that the essay does a really good job of illustrating the huge barrier to entry that the ability to choose to leave can be to a customer looking to use a product or service.
For me, the attitude of not allowing competitors to access public API keys seemed way too “lock in” like for even me, a very loyal Flickr user. I know that some of the arguments floating around places like TechCrunch were things like “why should Flickr let Zoomr use their bandwidth to take their customers”. The main reason for this is because they chose to create a public API and cannot discriminate against competitors without looking petty and protective.
This is a hard thing for companies to learn. Customers don’t want it to be a hard thing to leave your site or product. It’s a powerful feeling to know that you can move somewhere to try out a service and if it doesn’t work for you — you can leave. At different times in my career I’ve watched people confuse the idea of “creating stickiness” with the idea of tying the customer to a particular product — or at least making it hard for them to leave — and its really just disappointing to me and a clear sign that someone doesn’t get it.
“Stickiness” is the value you are creating that cannot be provided anywhere else and has nothing to do with whether your customer is “stuck” with you or not.
The decision that Flickr has made is to allow public access by competitors to their public API’s is a good one. I do disagree with Tom on one point, in that I think that the requirement that such competitors are required to provide a complete and accessible public API for them is a good one. I think thats a fair trade off and overall will set an example and a requirement to play fair and an expectation that when you take advantage of openness, you must be willing to be open yourself.
Oddly, its the same example Stallman has been trying to set for years …