Why I'm down on hypermedia containers

In response to my hypermedia opinions, Mike Kelly said:

These two seem to conflict: “In my opinion, abstract container formats aren’t useful.” and “Just use JSON”. People normally talk about “generic” media types, but they don’t have to a “container” at all, they can simply add conventions for linking. Having conventions for this stuff is useful because it allows us to build tooling around it, if everyone reinvents the wheel in their own way then we can’t build re-usable code. For a similar reason, “specifying your own custom MIME types” is not a good idea – there’s also the time cost associated with doing that. If you use something like hal+json you avoid that cost, and can concentrate on establishing your API’s workflows via link relations.

The logic behind the madness goes like this: abstract containers aren’t solving a problem I currently have. Unfortunately, this means they create problems for me. In the end, I’m building an API to provide functionality, not as advocacy.

As of summer 2012, there are ideas like HAL, JSON collections, etc. and specifications of those ideas. There are very few implementations. As a service provider, I wouldn’t actually get any benefit out of using those formats. The convention, within my own API, that fields ending in _url are links is sufficient. I’d actually end up net negative, because I’d have to explain how e.g. HAL works and support client developers seeking to understand how to work with it. Anyone building to my API would likely end up having to write their own HAL code, so they don’t benefit much either.

I’ve decided to use JSON because providing an API that returns HTML and expects users to scrape it via selectors is extremely confusing to developers. Keep in mind, not everyone is savvy to the latest development trends. To them, an API means an HTTP service that returns XML or JSON. If I were to embrace HTML as a response type, I’m again stuck with explaining a new concept to client developers.

If it’s not obvious yet, one of my main principles in adopting hypermedia is to avoid educating developers on hypermedia as much as possible. I’m in the game of providing a useful API, not a system that shows off the possibilities of hypermedia and how deeply committed I am to its theories.

Finally, I’ve chosen to craft my own content types because I need some kind of contract with client developers that tells them what kind of data they can expect to see, plus some documentation that expresses that contract in a way that is easy for humans to understand. An RFC-style specification that states what a content type MUST/MAY/SHOULD include is exactly the right kind of abstraction. It allows me to update the specification with a version identifier and specify how each revision changes in terms of what data is available. Further, I found a content type the most tractable solution for specifying the input formats supported by PUT and POST endpoints. None of the abstract containers that existed as of August 2012 fit my needs for specifying links, structure, and how to submit data via POST/PUT/PATCH.

Honestly, link traversal and machine-to-machine interaction are not the pain I’m feeling. What I want is the simplest possible API that allows potential client developers to understand what they can do via our API and how to do it. Further, I want it to be possible, even if it’s not magical or easy, to change the API in the future so I’m not constricted by its current design. I feel no need to apply all of the hypermedia principles to make something useful; I can cherrypick some of the hypermedia principles and still achieves the goal of an API that is stable but not set in stone.

Adam Keys @therealadam