The Ascent of the Customizable Web
An overview of APIs and how they're changing everything
Wake up to your favorite playlist. Check your stock portfolio. “Get directions” to everywhere. Track delivery for that new pair of shoes. Watch a movie on Netflix. “Buy now on Amazon.”
Virtually anything you do online all day long — and virtually everything that makes the Internet so convenient, helpful, portable, and smart — is made possible through the magic of APIs. Application Programming Interfaces enable all the devices on the Internet to access data and resources without the user having to actually visit the source.
It’s reasonable to say that APIs have totally made the online experience what it is today. They extend our Internet connection far beyond the browser to phones and tablets and every kind of connected device, to the point where one no longer thinks of being “online” — we’re just connected. And when you’re accessing the Internet the old-fashioned way, through a browser on a computer, APIs have transformed websites into data-driven, interactive, media-rich experiences.
Before long, everything we do, from driving our cars to managing our health and finances to entertaining ourselves to controlling every gadget, system and device in our lives, will be accomplished through the interaction of APIs.
ABCs of APIs
In its simplest form, a Web API is a request-response protocol written and published by the owner of some kind of digital asset — data, videos, photographs, the software to set your thermostat, or anything else that can be published online. A developer who is given access to the API (sometimes it’s open to anyone, sometimes to a select few) then uses that API in some kind of front end, for example, a website or a mobile app, to present the content or functionality to end users. The user sees website content or an app that does their bidding, but they don’t see where it’s coming from. Similarly, a user could use any number of apps to get the latest sports scores, for example, but all of those scores might really be coming from ESPN via its API.
At its most fundamental level, an API enables a behind-the-scenes, machine-to-machine transaction. At a higher level, it enables enterprises to offer access to their digital assets, and encourages developers to create new and innovative uses of those assets, and potentially creates revenue streams. For users, it gives powerful and convenient access to a world of content and applications in ways they’ve never had before.
Birth of the Web API
APIs did not start with the Web. In fact, one of the most successful API stories ever is the Microsoft Windows API, which enabled all those third-party developers to create applications for Windows, and in turn propel it to near-monopoly status in desktop operating systems. Today, though, the talk is all about Web APIs and the interconnected ecosystems they support.
Among the earliest players to embrace Web APIs were the Internet giants-to-be such as Google, Amazon, and Salesforce. They started leveraging APIs in their early days, which helped them to become the dominant online forces they are today.
“They looked at these platforms they were creating and asked themselves, how do we generate interest?” says John Rakowski, a Forrester Research analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals. “How do we generate further partnerships with our customers and with partners out there who can help us innovate a lot quicker, who can utilize our platform to build our brand, but also to create a partner ecosystem?”
The answer was to pursue a proactive API strategy, reaching out to developers and supporting them as they created their own layers of interface and functionality on top of Google’s or Amazon’s or Salesforce’s data. The developers could be using the APIs to create applications for niche markets, or to integrate with other applications.
In addition to creating a partner ecosystem, Rakowski says that opening up a platform via APIs “also gets your brand out there and makes people aware of it very, very quickly, because they can interact with your platform, which means all-in-all, it leads to faster growth because there’s more awareness of your platform in the market.”
Some refer to this idea as “outsourcing innovation. ” Even if you’re an Amazon or Google, there are niches and use cases that are too small to justify internal development resources, or that you just haven’t thought of yet. But by making APIs publicly available, it’s possible that a developer somewhere will have an idea and create a solution that wouldn’t come out of your own lab. Hipmunk.com, a travel booking site that uses Expedia’s data and booking engine, is a successful example.
“Hipmunk provided just a new user interface and user experience that Expedia wasn’t providing,” says Sasha Kamenetska, API platform analyst at Mashery, one of the industry’s top API management firms. “They were getting all their data through Expedia.
“Expedia gets to reach niche markets that it wasn’t reaching before. They are not going to be able to create all these different apps that focus on the different target audiences. These smaller companies can go use its data and create apps without having to collect all the travel data and create their own search algorithm.”
These affiliates or partners have generated about $2 billion in revenue for Expedia, no doubt making it worth every bit of the effort (and money) Expedia puts into developing, maintaining, promoting and supporting its APIs. And worth it, too, to the affiliate developers who get to keep a cut of the revenue that flows through the apps they create.
Public APIs, Private APIs
These APIs described so far are public or open APIs, made available to the developer community at large, within reason; there are generally some kind of controls or credential requirements to keep things from getting unruly. Because they are open, these are the APIs we know the most about.
Programmable Web, a directory and resource site for all things API, has at this writing cataloged almost 10,000 public APIs; at the end of 2005, that tally sat at just 105. That’s an increase of 9,500 percent in eight years. API Hub, another API repository, puts the number at 13,508 at this writing. Any way you count it, that’s a lot of APIs. But it is likely only the tip of the iceberg, because it’s only one type of API.
Another type of API is a private API, used by enterprises to develop internal apps, streamline in-house development of external apps, or any number of other functions. Nobody knows for sure how many of those there are, but it’s likely to be far more than public APIs.
A survey by Layer 7, yet another API management firm, reports that 43 percent of “enterprise-grade” organizations already have an API program in place, either public or private, and a total of 85 percent plan to have one in place by 2018. The main motivations reported for developing API programs were:
Mobility programs: 71.9%
Partner connectivity: 69.1%
Cloud integration: 67.6%
Enabling internal developers: 66.9%
Fostering external developer ecosystems: 55.4%
Performance monitoring: There’s an API for that.
While IT departments are quickly racing into the private API game with their own data, they’re also being transformed by the ability to consume a greater number of vendor services by API. For example, data access via API can help ensure competitive performance for websites and apps by providing timely access to actionable data, and the ability to quickly filter the noise from the meaningful numbers. Keynote offers APIs that enable clients to grab their data in real time in order to create the visualizations that best serve their operational data needs — including combining with data from other sources — and to leverage software tools to quickly surface potential performance issues.
“With our API, Keynote frees client data from our systems,” says Aaron Rudger, product marketing manager at Keynote Systems. “Operations groups need to implement their own analysis, and integrate multiple tools to do their job. All their data is more valuable if it can be leveraged together. The Keynote API lets them pull in their performance data to use however they need it.”
That need could be as simple as creating presentations to illuminate performance to other levels or groups in an organization. Or it could be to mash-up with other data sources to look for correlations and do deeper analysis. Or perhaps most importantly, it could be to accelerate identification of and response to critical performance issues.
“An ops team can be dealing with hundreds or even thousands of incident reports,” Rudger says. “You can’t effectively staff to handle it all. That’s where automation comes in. Using real-time data pulled in through the Keynote API in conjunction with other internal and external data, software can be created to analyze all the signals, separate out the noise, and triage the incidents that are most critical and require immediate attention. This is something a machine, a robot if you will, can do very well, much better than human beings. And it’s all made possible through APIs.”
Data visualization made easy by APIs
More and more every day, it’s a data-driven business world. Whether it’s to find the consumers most likely to buy a product right now, or to make sure an online experience is fast and flawless, data is the key to maximizing results. But digesting huge data troves and parsing the results into usable form is an ominous task at best. That’s where data visualization comes in.
Thanks to APIs, data from various sources can be pulled together and presented in whatever form it’s needed, whether it’s to correlate multiple data sources or to prepare a compelling management presentation. You can have Google Analytics next to Keynote Transaction Perspective next to Facebook Page Likes, or whatever data you need and are able to access via an API. One startup that’s targeting the need for data visualization is Leftronic, which is on a mission to make it simple to create impressive data dashboards.
“You choose the metric you want to visualize and simply drag and drop it on your dashboard,” says Rajiv Ghanta,
Given the need to be agile and responsive, no matter what business you’re in, usability is key factor for any kind of data visualization process. It can’t be a major IT project anytime a VP requests a particular data mash-up.
"We knew we had to make this easy to set up for non-technical folks,” Ghanta says, “because the first thing that goes through their minds when we say 'API' or 'integration' is, I'm going to have to pull in a development resource to set this up, and it'll be a two-week project. But with our solution, you can realistically get dashboards up and running within minutes. And you end up with a dashboard that tracks all of your key metrics visually — because there's just no way to take in all of the information that's being thrown at you unless it's being presented visually."
Getting started with an API program
APIs are a powerful way to glean extra value from an enterprise’s data assets and digital resources, extending the reach of products and services, building the brand, and even generating revenue. It requires a thoughtful approach and commitment of resources to make it work.
There are many, many flavors of APIs, and they are used to power so many things, both inside organizations and across the entire Internet. Still, there are core best practices that apply to API programs across the board. Formulating an API strategy is first. And then managing the API like the product that it is, through its entire lifecycle, from development to marketing to support.
“A clear strategy is critical,” says Mashery’s Kamenetska, “Successful API programs clearly define what their goals are for their API, and fit into a company’s overall business goals and business objectives.
“You really want to look at your API as a product — so really making sure that you’re creating a roadmap for your API, and determining who your customer base is going to be for that API, whether it’s open developers, whether it’s partners or customers, or whether even if it’s internal users.”
As for any product, marketing is key for APIs. Often, the target is developers and/or potential partners. As fundamental as it seems, generating awareness of the API with these audiences is the first step. Once on board, it becomes a matter of relationships and service.
“The support of your API is your ‘customer service’ for your API,” Kamenetska says. “So you need to have good documentation, you need to be available to answer questions frequently and in a timely manner.”
As with anything online, security is a major concern for enterprises opening up their data through APIs. “You have to remember that data is like the crown jewels, especially when it comes to a technology service,” says Forrester’s Rakowski. “You’ve got to be pretty worried about who you’re giving access to, and how you’re giving that API access.”
Often, an API management firm is enlisted to assist with any or all of these steps in getting an API program off the ground and keeping it secure, efficient, and effective.
The future: For everything an API
It’s becoming apparent already: Anything that consumes power is going to be connected in some way to the Internet. Cars, refrigerators, thermostats, TV, personal drones, you name it. There will be a way to connect with it, interact with it, and control it.
“We call it the ‘Internetting space,’” says Kamenetska. “We’re really in a post-website era…Anything that you touch is going to become Internet-enabled, and the apps that are going to be there and the experience that you’re going to be having on those devices are really made possible by APIs.”