Netflix is using an API, not to make their streaming services available to developers — which would cause all kinds of problems with their suppliers — and not for a handful of special projects.

Netflix has made their API a pillar of their multi-device distribution strategy. The other pillars are, suprisingly, HTML5 and Webkit (the open source Web browser engine). Instead of creating custom applications for each new device they want to be on, they’re porting Webkit to that device, if it’s not already there, and then building their custom application in HTML5.

The result, as I’m sure you know, is that Netflix is everywhere. Their customers can watch their movies on about 200 different devices. This video (from Mashery’s Business of API’s conference) changed the way I think about the impact of API’s on publisher strategy. I recommend watching starting at about 9 minutes into the video.

But their breadth of distribution is only one headline. The other headline is that they can rapidly change their appearance on all these devices quickly, with much less programming and a single platform: HTML + CSS + Javascript.

If Netflix can solve a distribution problem like this using standard Web technologies, publishers should reconsider non-standard solutions targeted at single platforms, such as iPads or iPhones. Right now, Apple is clearly dominant in non-PC distribution platforms, but we can expect rapid innovation from both hardware and software (Android, Windows, HP’s Palm, RIM, and more) manufacturers. Market fragmentation could become the norm in the near to mid term. And these new devices will be even better platforms for reading than for video.

Highly customized, device-specific “electronic magazines” and “digital newspapers” demo well and dominate the blog-driven news cycle, but they’re hardly the flexible platforms we’ll need in the next five years.

When mulitplatform distribution becomes the norm, we know that Netflix will be ready.

How many publishers will be ready?