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Walgreens' Prescription For Photo Profits: Public API

Walgreens expects to expand use of its chain-wide photo printing
Another service making quick use of the API is Kicksend, an iPhone app that lets users send large sets of 30 to 50 photos to another person. Users store their photos on a Kicksend server, then send a thumbnail sheet to recipients with a URL to where the photos may be retrieved.

All or part of the photos on the sheet can be printed out at Walgreens, noted Pradeep Elankumaran, CEO and co-founder of Kicksend, in an interview. The order to print can be issued from the iPhone that received the sheet without first downloading the photos to the owner's Mac. The application works with video as well.

"We're essentially a delivery service," said Elankumaran. Before, iPhone users could exchange information by phone leading to the download of large sets of photos from Kicksend servers to a Mac or PC, but they couldn't do much directly from their phones due to the large amount of memory taken up by big photo sets. The software development kit provided for implementing Walgreens' API "was quite easy to use. We didn't have a lot of trouble with it," the way Kicksend sometimes does with published APIs whose behavior has changed without the changes being represented in the documentation.

"This has been a big win for us… The (Walgreens) API was just a good fit overall with what we do," he said. Kicksend adopted the API soon after it was issued July 10.

The headline on Kicksend's home page now says: "Now you can receive and print photos directly from your iPhone and pick up high quality prints at your local Walgreens in an hour." Walgreens didn't have experience on how best to open up a traditional service to mobile apps developers prior to the QuickPrints API, said Tim McCauley, senior director of Walgreens' mobile commerce. It contacted Apigee, an API management firm for consultation. Firms such as Apigee, Mashery, and Layer7 sell services on managing APIs properly and often end up hosting clients' APIs on their own servers to better manage the traffic.

Apigee hosts 100 billion API calls a month on its own servers for customers such as Netflix, Getty Images, Bechtel, and Walgreens, said CEO Chet Kapoor. Apigee Tuesday received $20 million in funding from Focus Ventures, Bay Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, SAP Ventures, and Third Point Ventures, in addition to the $52 million it has already received.

McCauley said Walgreens hasn't had a chance yet to quantify the amount of traffic to QuickPrints that it can attribute to the API becoming available. But company executives are convinced the approach has the potential to expand Walgreens printing business by 20%.

McCauley said it wasn't enough to simply open up a service. The API "must be as easy to use as possible," and Walgreens makes it possible for third parties to build in not only a way to submit orders but consumer choice on which store they go to and a payment method. Walgreens will issue coupons to encourage use of the service that developers may add to their apps as well. McCauley said Walgreens' own mobile app taught it the significance of serving existing customers more conveniently. But the public API is teaching it how it can let third parties think of innovative ways for consumers to use its existing services.

"This is a great way to expand our mobile innovation. We've got lots of ideas" for additional mobile services based in Walgreens stores to further expand its mobile clientele, he said. But it's important for traditional businesses to realize how important it is to make it an easy, step-by-step process for third-party developers to incorporate into their applications. To Elankumaran, the API was something he was looking for. "We care about good design that everyday people can use. Our users just love it."

Writing apps is expensive and complex. Cross-platform tools can help, but they're far from perfect. Also in the new, all-digital Develop Once, Run Everywhere? issue of InformationWeek: Why the cloud will become a more accepted development environment. (Free with registration.)