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Walgreens' Prescription For Photo Profits: Public API

Walgreens expects to expand use of its chain-wide photo printing service 20% through third-party mobile app developers. An open API will pave the way.

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Walgreens, a 111-year-old retail pharmacy, might have the right prescription for staying young as a business: Find new customers through third-party developers, who connect to your services through a public application programming interface (API).

Walgreens did that July 10 with its first publicly published API for third-party developers. It issued an API for its QuickPrints photo development service. It offers one-hour printing in "nearly all" of its 7,907 brick-and-mortar stores. The chain has had its own iPad and iPhone app since 2010, primarily for renewing prescriptions; in March it added the photo printing service.

But the Walgreens app hasn't been downloaded by quite as many of the 74 million iPhone users out there as hoped for.

Walgreens executives believed the potential was there to expand its QuickPrints business. After all, it had read that 27% of all photos taken today are now taken by cell phone users. So this summer it built a software development kit and on July 10 published an API that gave registered developers the ability to connect their applications to the QuickPrints service. Part of the functionality behind the API is to determine the Walgreens store nearest the iPhone user.

[ Want to learn more about how to make your APIs available to third-party developers? See Do's and Don'ts of API Development. ]

One of the first to take advantage of the Walgreens API were the developers behind Pic Stitch, a photo arranging application that's frequently found on the top 30 list of popular iPhone apps. It's been downloaded six million times since its launch 11 months ago.

Alex Keim, Pic Stitch's owner and developer, said the Walgreens API was something he needed to keep Pic Stitch distinguished from the thousands of other photo editing and sharing applications available for free download from the iTunes store. Some observers say there is a total of over 25,000 such apps.

Pic Stitch allows iPhone users to build simple layouts and collages using multiple pictures, adding special effects if they wish. Keim was among the first to add a feature that lets a Pic Stitch user submit a collage to one of the nearby Walgreens for printing.

He said the Walgreens API was well documented and straightforward to adopt. "I was able to implement it in a couple of hours," he said. He regrets the app still only allows one printout per submission by a Pic Stitch. The user should have the option of ordering multiple copies, and he's working on that feature for the next release of the app.

Walgreens' own iPhone app, while offering QuickPrints service, doesn't let users do layouts or combinations of pictures. But with a public API, it doesn't need to think of every option or do the programming to get them into an application. One reason Walgreens made its photo service API public was to tap into the thinking and talents of third-party developers such as Keim.

Keim said he learned of the API before it was published through Aviary, a supplier of photo editing software. Keim is an early adopter of Aviary software. His contacts there advised him his application might be a nice fit with the upcoming Walgreens service. Walgreens published the API July 10. Keim, who had gotten advance information on it, was ready with a new release of Pic Stitch that invoked the service the same day.

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.)

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