eBay wants developers to take it outside

This week's developers conference will see the debut of services, tools that let developers put eBay functionality in external sites

As it battles competitors like Google and Amazon.com for the hearts and minds of application programmers, eBay this week will hold its biggest annual event for these computer professionals, its 2007 eBay Developers Conference, in Boston.

This year the conference's theme is to "bring eBay anywhere." The focus will be on motivating developers to build applications that extend eBay's e-commerce services to third-party Web sites and new hardware devices.

This emphasis shows that eBay, like other Internet companies, acknowledges it needs to adapt to a new world in which millions of people publish blogs and contribute to Web sites with text, photos and videos.

With people devoting significant portions of their online time to maintaining and reading blogs, uploading and viewing videos, and posting and rating news articles, eBay must take its e-commerce services wherever users gather.

To that end, on Monday eBay will introduce services and tools designed to let developers put eBay functionality in external sites, such as blogs and social networks, and in non-PC devices, like mobile phones and televisions.

eBay, like most other major Internet companies, knows it can benefit greatly from allowing and helping external developers create Web applications and tools that extend and enhance the functionality of its sites and online services.

While it's good for eBay to embrace Web 2.0 trends, such as application mashups and user-generated content, it should also focus on more basic issues that need attention, according to developers and analysts.

"I'm very satisfied with the eBay Developers Program, but there's room for improvement," David Pesta, an eBay developer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said.

For instance, high fees continue to repel sellers from eBay's marketplace, leading them to set up their own stores or migrating to other, less expensive sites, Pesta said.

A developer effort such as the one planned for this week should be combined with fee reductions, Pesta said. "Otherwise I'd have certain doubts about this effort's success," said Pesta, whose Auction Zealot application automates and simplifies eBay seller processes.

There are also occasional kinks in eBay's backend systems. Pesta's pet peeve is when a seller lists a product and it takes several hours for eBay to index its keywords. In that interval, the product fails to show up in eBay search engine results, Pesta said.

This affects users of Auction Zealot and of other seller applications. "This keyword indexing problem is one they need to get worked out," he said.

John Andrews, an industry analyst with Evans Data, praises the eBay Developers Program as the best overall for its breadth, but points out that Google and Microsoft offer better programming tools.

eBay also needs to significantly beef up its developer ranks, because other companies have attracted larger numbers of programmers, he said. The more developers eBay has in its program, the more innovative applications will be created to enhance its online services. "It's important for eBay to grow that developer base," Andrews said.

The company has had its eBay Developers Program since 2000 and about 50,000 external developers have signed up for it. EBay's PayPal online payment unit has about 260,000 registered developers in its program.

At this week's event, eBay expects about 500 developers to attend, a fraction of the 5,000 that flocked to Google's recent Developer Day, held in 10 cities around the world. Speakers will include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and John Donahoe, president of eBay Marketplaces.

Pesta will not be in attendance, nor will Dave Moniz, a developer who lives in southern Massachusetts, within driving distance of the event's venue. However, neither could come up with a good enough reason to attend, even though they seem like the type of developers that eBay should be attracting to the event. Both launched their applications early this year and both are active and satisfied eBay developers.

Moniz, an eBay merchant for about seven years whose software store is called Generous Listings, wrote an application for himself to automate eBay searches. In January, he launched a version of it on the Web called Automated Searches for others to use.

While delighted with the eBay Developers Program so far, he's interested in having eBay make more programming functions available to external developers so that he can add more features to Automated Searches, he said.

It remains to be seen how excited developers will be with what eBay has in store for this week.

Among the new services eBay will introduce is an API (application programming interface) to allow bidding on eBay from outside of its Web site. In addition to this Bidding API, as it's formally known, the company will also announce Shopping Web Services, a suite of APIs that accelerates searching on eBay and contains tools for creating buyer applications.

Also on Monday, eBay will introduce Client Alerts, which it describes as "lightweight, near real time" notifications about marketplace activity. New JavaScript and Flash developer centers are also coming online.

On the PayPal side, a new Certified Developer Program will allow developers to take a test and receive special credentials and inclusion in an official directory. Moreover, new mobile APIs will allow merchants to use PayPal's mobile checkout process.

Finally, eBay's comparison shopping site Shopping.com, plans to release a revamped API in this year's third quarter with an enhanced interface and tools for faster implementations.

The eBay Developers Conference ends Wednesday, and will be followed by eBay Live, the company's annual conference for merchants, from Thursday through Saturday. Both are being held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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