eBay courts developers to bring in buyers

eBay is on a drive to put its brand everywhere people experience the Internet, and it wants outside Web developers to help get it there.

The strategy is a new one for a company that has emphasized its robust e-commerce transaction system in opening itself up to heavy-selling affiliates, and currently gets about a quarter of its listings from big sellers using third-party tools to connect into eBay’s backend. Now the online auction giant wants to reach more buyers where they live, and is hoping developers will take advantage of lighter and faster interfaces to carry its flag to the user.

“We need to shift our attention to supporting the buying experience,” said Max Mancini, senior director of platform and disruptive innovation at eBay, in an interview at the company’s developer conference in Boston this week.

The new APIs (application programming interfaces) don’t require authentication to acquire information from eBay and display it within other applications or Web pages, removing a significant obstacle to casual use of eBay listings for their information or entertainment value. The so-called “shopping APIs” are also up to 16 times faster at returning search results, eBay says. The company also released a bidding API that developers can use to allow bidding from other applications and sites, and established support centers for developers working in JavaScript and Flash, popular for interactive, customer-facing sites and applications.

In putting together a suite of tools that will help spread its presence into blogs, social networks and deeper into the Web 2.0 world, eBay is acknowledging what eBay Marketplaces President John Donahoe called “an explosion of easy to use starting points.”

In pushing the eBay experience closer to users — and making it easier for third parties to get information from the marketplace without necessarily engaging in transactions — is the company risking its relationship with buyers? Donahoe said he isn’t worried about that. “It’s the opposite of disintermediation, it allows them to engage directly with eBay on their own terms, and in the mode and device they want,” he said.

That emphasis on the buy-side can also be seen in the company’s recent acquisition of StumbleUpon, which has developed a Web browsing tool that uses user preferences and community ratings to recommend content. “We thought it was a cool technology,” said Donahoe in an interview, adding that it fit into eBay’s goal of improving the search and find experience. “We want to find ways to have search be more entertaining.”

eBay’s efforts to get more face-time with buyers also include a new connected desktop application code-named San Dimas that opened for beta testing this week. Built using the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) tool, the downloadable application stays with users even when they are offline and gives eBay a “constant presence on the desktop” according to Donahoe. San Dimas also provides a kind of innovation laboratory, he said, giving eBay a place where it can experiment with changing the buyer experience without disrupting the millions of users comfortable with the status quo.

AIR lets eBay provide a buying experience through San Dimas that’s not constrained by browser functionality, the aspect of the project that is most exciting to Alan Lewis, the manager of platform evangelism who was demoing the application in Boston. Other developers could similarly use eBay’s Web services to build a desktop application with AIR, and eBay is working with Adobe to pull together a code library to ease the process.

Developers can also look forward to tools, coming later this year, that will help them scale their eBay applications, Mancini said. And it’s possible that Web developers will see a simpler package of tools aimed at all three of eBay’s core pieces — the auction market, Skype and PayPal — in the second half of the year, another company source said.

Meanwhile in Boston, the focus was as much on promoting entrepreneurship as it was on coding tools, and developers seemed to be in that mindset. One young attendee from Japan described his objective as prospecting for business opportunities in the interfaces that eBay has opened up, and he said he was taking advantage of the conference to find out how other businesses are making money from the leverage that eBay is offering.

For its part, eBay seems focused on giving entrepreneurial coders the tools — and seeing how deeply into the social networking fabric of Web 2.0 independent developers can weave the eBay logo.

This story, "eBay courts developers to bring in buyers" was originally published by PCWorld.

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