Undocumented Features

I was amused to discover grumbling around the Internet about Google’s weather API, and their decision to remove it. This describes what happened:

Last month, Google announced plans to shutter iGoogle, among a bunch of other services. Many developers and users were (and still are) outraged, but at least they have some time to breathe: iGoogle isn’t going away until November 1, 2013. That means there are still 15 months left to adjust and export your data. Yet some changes are already starting to take effect: the company’s private Weather API, for example, appears to be dead in the water.

There’s some real gems further down:

Why should Google expect support tickets? The big clue is in the word “undocumented.” More from the article:

Web developer Jordan Stephens isn’t even bothering to look for alternatives. In fact, CurrentlyIn has been completely shut down as a result of the Google Weather API outage, according to an error message from the service.

Indeed, navigating to the CurrentlyIn site gets brings us the following:

currentlydown : (

Google has shut down its undocumented weather API (which was used by this site).

currentlyin.net will be down for the forseeable future.

The statement “let’s use this undocumented API from Google to get weather information for free” seems like a great idea, but undocumented features aren’t really features at all. Anything without documentation is an implementation detail, and subject to change without notice. In this case, change happened to include removal.

There’s some great examples at The Old New Thing:

Three examples off the top of my head of the consequences of grovelling into and relying on undocumented structures.

Defragmenting things that can’t be defragmented

In Windows 2000, there are several categories of things that cannot be defragmented. Directories, exclusively-opened files, the MFT, the pagefile… That didn’t stop a certain software company from doing it anyway in their defragmenting software. They went into kernel mode, reverse-engineered NTFS’s data structures, and modified them on the fly. Yee-haw cowboy! And then when the NTFS folks added support for defragmenting the MFT to Windows XP, these programs went in, modified NTFS’s data structures (which changed in the meanwhile), and corrupted your disk.
Of course there was no mention of this illicit behavior in the documentation. So when the background defragmenter corrupted their disks, Microsoft got the blame.

[...]

I hope you understand why I tend to go ballistic when people recommend relying on undocumented behavior. These weren’t hobbyists in their garage seeing what they could do. These were major companies writing commercial software.

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