Web Informant #350, 12 November 2003:

Amazon opens up




These days, when you think about leaders in Web services, you tend to think about IBM, Microsoft or Sun -- or some other tools vendor that is providing interfaces, code and applications servers. But my candidate for the top spot isn't a vendor of computer software. It does sell a lot of stuff, though, in fact more than most Web sites and with a wide range of products and items. My candidate is Amazon.com.


What does a glorified online bookstore have to do with Web services? Plenty. Amazon has been leading our industry in several fronts, almost since the first book was sold in the summer of 1995. Two recent developments once again emphasized how Amazon is taking steps beyond what many of their competitors are doing: Itís opening up a Web services interface to its back-end systems and allowing customers to use keyword searches to actually view a series of the pages of the books that are for sale.


It makes sense for Amazon to support and encourage Web services, since Amazon is no stranger to opening backend systems up to partners. In the mid-1990s, the company established "Amazon Associates" which was a commission-based system that paid partners that posted books on their own Web sites. Being an associate took little time and virtually no expertise: I became one and soon was collecting a little bit of money (which I donated to charity, although I know Amazon was still benefiting from my customers) from the books that I listed on my own site. But Amazon has extended this concept even further with support for Web services:



If you are at all interested, I urge you to go to the site and read the documentation. In the meantime, let me give you a couple of examples of how this might work. In the new Microsoft Office 2003 products, there is a task pane on the right hand side called "research" that can support a wide variety of queries, including looking up stock quotes, doing encyclopedia searches, and more. Amazon adds their own search tool to this pane, so you can look up book titles and authors right from within Word or other Office applications, without having to bring up another browser window and lose your place and train of thought. This is the way writers work (or at least, the way some of us work), and it is sweet.


The same is true with other applications and pieces of code that you can either write yourself or borrow from its vast collection of partners who have already written what you need. The idea here is much the same as with Office 2003: keep users inside the context of what they are currently doing, so they don't have to switch applications and refocus. The code can bring up a "one-click" purchase window inside your Web page, or a fancier search function, or one of dozens of different applications. Using their Web services interfaces, developers can tap into the overall Amazon product catalog, shopping cart, merchandizing tools, and search engines. The possibilities are limitless. You can integrate their product descriptions into your Web pages, or create your own customized Web storefronts that are front ends to their catalog. The company says they are most excited about applications for their data that they haven't even thought of yet, and welcome all comers. It is quite refreshing.


In order for you to get started in using Amazonís Web interfaces, you have to do two things: first, download a ZIP file thatís the starter kit. It contains instructions, code fragments and other useful bits of advice. Second, you'll need to apply to get a token that identifies you to Amazonís servers, which is quick and easy and free (although you will need to register with a valid credit card, so they can keep track of who you are). If you have some XML and SOAP expertise, you will be quickly on your way to writing applications. If not, you can buy or borrow from various examples and piece together what you need fairly easily. I am not a programmer, but I could see that this wasn't very hard. And if you run into trouble, Amazon has a series of discussion boards on which you can post your questions and get your problems solved.


The search and view functions are called "Search inside the book" and "Look inside the book" respectively. Time magazine calls it "Google your books" and it is an apt description. As you browse for particular titles, you can examine a few sample pages of the books, or drill down further into locating specific references to keywords within the entire text stream. Your search results will be shown as a facsimile of the book's actual printed pages on your screen. Not all books that they carry support these two features (the company says about 120,000 books do), and some authors and publishers have asked that their books not be included in the service, all of which is a pity. Amazon is working hard proselytizing to publishers so they get on board.


My own "Home Networking" book, as an example, only has the "look" feature, without the searching implemented, as you can see if you click on my book's page in Amazon. You'll notice that when you bring up my book's page in your browser it doesn't seem all that different. But when click on further information about my book and you'll be able to examine the first and last bunch of pages, looking at the actual type fonts and layouts of the page. That is pretty cool.



As a voracious reader, I am excited about this new development from Amazon, although the way that I acquire new reading material is more serendipitous than a planned search using this new service. I look for new works by contemporary authors whom I have enjoyed, or new fiction titles in the library that intrigue me, or trashy thriller novels that I can buy in the typical airport bookstore that I consume on a plane trip. Maybe the "try before I buy" feature will work for me -- it is too soon for me to change some well-developed habits. But I am glad to see it implemented.


Contrast what Amazon is doing with what the music recording industry is doing. It is the difference between writing code and writing legal briefs, or launching programmers vs. deploying lawyers. Rather than encourage people to use their backend systems and search their catalogs, the music business is doing everything they can to keep their customers away with lawsuits, tough talk and heavy-handed tactics to encrypt new music CDs and other instruments of technological torture.  According to Amazon, sales of books with the "search inside" feature have been stronger than books that don't have the feature, showing you that the more information you give shoppers and the more control over their content in the context of a purchase/decision stream, the more your sales will increase.  And the combination of new support for Web services and the search features are two powerful reasons that Amazon will continue to lead by example in this area.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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