How APIs Are Exposing Value and Changing the Nature of the Internet
In 2012, the client-server paradigm, which has dominated application architecture -- and the modern Web architecture which is its most modern incarnation -- over the past twenty years, is giving ground to a more broadly distributed client-cloud approach. As this shift happens, it promises to unlock value in previously under-utilized enterprise data and media content. The catalyst for this change is to be found in the explosion of application programming interfaces, or APIs, which expose resources within and beyond the corporate firewall and redefine the online economy.
The Web has grown up with servers providing data to desktop or laptop computers. Recent changes have seen this model blown apart, splintering both ends of the client-server scenario. On the client side, 2011 saw mobile devices exceed their desktop brethren as the predominant mode of access to the cloud for the first time, while the Web server is becoming “thinner” as more content arrives from secondary sources often spread across multiple web domains. This is the client-cloud paradigm: multiple sources of cloud-based content and services delivered to a diverse set of mobile devices.
An essential part of the emergence of this paradigm is the expansion of cloud APIs. Although cloud APIs have been around for over a decade, 2012 is likely to be the “Year of the API”, marking the beginning of an era of proliferation in API usage.
Simply put, an API offers an application a contract in which a set of services is defined and from which they can be reliably accessed. The contract defines the calls to be made and specifies resulting responses. Thus, an API lets any application consume its functionality, data, and media as long as the app accepts the “contract terms”.
As cloud APIs drive strategy in the connected economy, a new business model is emerging, with companies racing to capitalize on exposing their resources in myriad ways, both internally and publicly, for access across all kinds of devices. Businesses that fail to do so will be at a disadvantage.
Step One: Private APIs
On the inside, APIs help businesses improve access to content among employees and partner companies with the aim of maximizing the value hidden in corporate data and media. Often, in the past, Microsoft Excel has served as the “development platform” enabling enterprise business units to customize access to corporate data. But, the mobile consumerization of the enterprise and the greater access to simple tools for more powerful app creation is changing this landscape.
Private APIs are not for internal consumption alone. “In our experience, the biggest and most far-reaching impact of many private APIs is when companies use their API internally to build public apps,” say Daniel Jacobson, Greg Brail, and Dan Woods in APIs: A Strategy Guide (O’Reilly, 2011). “Using an API in this way tremendously increases efficiencies in extending products or features for customers. At a time when many companies are struggling to produce iPhone apps, companies with APIs have already released multiple versions of iPhone, Android, iPad, and other mobile apps.”
For example, National Public Radio uses a private, powerful API to internally develop mobile apps, while offering a public API that, despite offering more limited content rights, is serving a staggering 3.2 billion stories per month as of October 2011.
Step Two: Public APIs
Outside the enterprise, APIs are gaining ground – and even celebrity – in numerous high-profile examples. One of the best-known API success stories comes from Amazon: Its cloud service APIs let outsiders access the company’s massive data centers. Twitter, with its deceptively simple 140-character micro-blogging model, exploded thanks to its API play as API usage rose as high as 10 times its Web site traffic. (You probably read and write your tweets in an app using their API, rather than on the Twitter web page.) Facebook’s Graph API has spawned an industry of app development to support its hundreds of millions of users.
These are not edge cases either. The collection of available services is mushrooming, with the API repository ProgrammableWeb.com –- an Alcatel-Lucent subsidiary since 2010 –- listing over 4,000 public APIs. Some are offered by companies whose central services are delivered only via API, such as StackMob, which provides database and other back-end services. Others, such as Box.net or Parse.com, provide APIs as an important alternative means of access to their services. Still others, such as MUNI, which runs the city trains and buses of San Francisco, simply offer ancillary services via an API, such as train/bus arrival prediction, to support their primary mission.
If You Build It, Developers Will Come
The API economy is driven by a key innovation: Cloud APIs leverage the expertise of outside application developers, crowd-sourcing the access to content within the well-defined constraints of the API contract. The creators and managers of data and media resources, no matter how expert, will not always be fully aware of how broadly their data can be used. By exposing content resources for packaging into any number of innovative apps, the API enables a creative re-use of the content, including unanticipated mash-ups that could exponentially increase exposure of the company’s data and business logic resources in a secure way defined by the API.
FreeScore, for example, was able to use its internal APIs along with mobile location data, the Google mapping API, and the APIs of the three major credit bureaus in its first mobile app, designed to give customers easy access to their credit scores. The app gives the consumer crucial data when shopping for a home, mortgage, or interest rate. Users can also compare their scores to neighborhood average scores using mobile location-based functionality.
“FreeScore used building blocks available on the Web, and we were able to rapidly develop a mobile app with powerful functionality, one that was much more useful than we could have created without being able to get the existing pieces in the Cloud. Merging of credit data from multiple sources was probably not envisioned by the people who wrote the APIs. It’s exciting to push the envelope of rapid development.” says mobile architect Andrey Harhots.
As eBay found when it exposed its APIs and engaged 850,000 developers and as Facebook increasingly demonstrates with its massive growth in Facebook applications, if you build it, they -- app developers -- will come.
Unleashed via API
In summary, guerilla development by enterprise citizen developers and independents, along with the strategic availability of public and private APIs, is fueling a game-changing increase in productivity on the Web. Just as the competition between bricks-and-mortar stores and ecommerce has characterized competing business models over the past 15 years, as the client-cloud paradigm continues to emerge over the coming years, we will see a similar tension between those services contained within a single website or application and those that are unleashed via API. Just as the prior struggle favored the approach with less friction, so too will APIs grow more rapidly than services constrained to a single delivery mechanism. Only this time, the change will come much faster.
- APIs: A Strategy Guide: Creating Channels with Application Programming Interfaces http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920021223.do
- Programmable Web (API repository), http://www.programmableweb.com
- Gartner Says Citizen Developers Will Build at Least 25 Percent of New Business Applications by 2014, http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1744514
- Tiggzi Mobile App Builder, http://www.tiggzi.com
Originally published February 2012 as a PDF on the Exadel website.