EBay has big plans to provide more programming tools, like new software development kits (SDKs) and application programming interfaces (APIs), to its community of about 45,000 third-party developers. The goal is to help external developers increase the volume and variety of applications they create for the company's marketplace and in particular to increase applications for eBay buyers. Max Mancini, the recently appointed senior director of platform and innovation at eBay, spoke to Computerworld UK about these developer plans and about another group he heads called the disruptive innovation team, started last year.

What does the disruptive innovation team do at eBay?

Max Mancini: If we look at the evolution of innovation on eBay, it started with innovating around consumer-to-consumer commerce and the auction format online. Then over the last five or six years, eBay has had to innovate around technology just to keep up from scale and growth perspectives. So it has been focused on scalability, performance and search. In that sense, many of our investments and efforts around innovation have been focused on building up the platform. Now, as the company has about 12,000 employees, what we need to do is make sure that we continue to innovate around new business and feature ideas. We have teams for each of the major eBay areas, like our Buyer team, Seller team and eBay Express team. Each team works on its own innovations, focused on keeping up with the customer demands and, as the market evolves, on what comes next. That's part of their normal product road maps.

But my team is looking 12 to 18 months out to identify trends that we think are relevant to our business. We're creating a more structured innovation programme so that when people come up with ideas, they can submit them to a database and an environment that we review on a regular basis, usually weekly. And if things are pretty interesting we're able to bring people into a rotation on an innovation team to work on their ideas. My disruptive innovation team is part of this.

Why do you head both the disruptive innovation team and the developers’ programme?

Mancini: We feel that, organisationally, it made sense to combine them because the developers’ programme and web services are things that enable us to innovate on top of eBay's marketplace platform.

Are there any specific projects currently ongoing at the disruptive innovation team?

Mancini: Yes. As part of our 2007 strategic planning for the company, the innovation team identified what we felt were the two most important areas for us to invest our time in: buyer experience and social commerce.

Overall buyer experience is very important to us as a business, but independent of that, it's one of those areas we need to invest in because, from a technology trend perspective, there's a shift in the way people expect to interact on the internet. We need to get ahead of that. Internet users are evolving past just going through page flows, in other words, clicking on five links to get something done: filling out a form here and going to the next page and so on. They're going to more of a rich media, interactive experience that we have traditionally seen on desktop applications but that can be delivered to the web. Think AJAX and Flash. So we're spending time investing in buyer experience, specifically around rich media experiences delivered via the web.

Regarding social commerce, it's not social networking. If you look at things like LinkedIn, Plaxo, your Skype client, your AOL client, your Yahoo address book and your email – all of these things define relationships you have. But no one is looking at how these relationship definitions affect trust relationships in commerce. Let's say you have tickets for sale for a local sporting event but don't want to go through the hassle of listing them. You know you have friends who might be interested in the tickets but you don't want to spam all your friends. Making those tickets available to your buddies in your IM buddy list or your address book, and letting them discover what's available out there is an interesting model. The other piece is if you're going to transact with somebody and you don't have a relationship with that person. The fact that people are comfortable sharing and defining their relationships online makes that a potential disruptor to a reputation system [like eBay's feedback system]. So it's very important from my perspective to explore and understand how these trust definitions can affect an online reputation system.

Would this be taking eBay's feedback system to the next level?

Mancini: Yes, absolutely, but it's a different angle on it. Our feedback system is based on transactions, as opposed to determining whether I can trust this person through some other relationship other than a transaction. We need to stay on top of this trend.

A developer told me he's happy with the eBay developers' programme but that sometimes when you make changes to APIs, it forces him to adjust things on his application. Is this issue something you keep in mind when tweaking APIs?

Mancini: Change management is very important to developers because they have to react and update their applications. So one of the first things I did at the developers’ programme was staff up our product managers so that things don't slip by. This has happened in the past because we've had very limited product management support on APIs and that's changing now. I've got a good team focused on that. Our general direction is that anytime we release a feature on the site, that feature should be API/web services-enabled, because our [external] developers can innovate more than we can, because there are 45,000 of them and 12,000 eBay employees. So there are definitely great advantages to having a robust developers’ programme and we want to make sure those developers aren't getting left behind.

Developers also want us to help them market their products to buyers and sellers. They invest money, time and effort to create applications that work on top of eBay and they want some help reaching eBay users, so we're bringing aboard a full-time person to focus on nothing but helping our third-party developers market their tools to eBay users.