Ever think about what’s going on in your computer when you instruct it to cut and paste text? Seems simple enough, right? Ever think about what’s happening when you sign into an online news site using your Facebook or Twitter login? Or ask a weather app to tell you if you should pack sunscreen or an umbrella for that tech conference you’ll be flying to tomorrow? We’ve come to expect that, no matter how complex the information we want, it will be delivered to us fast, intelligibly, and with barely raising a finger.
The ungraspable amount of information available online, if we were unable to access it, might as well be expressed in ancient Mayan glyphs. Without a seamless interface between our devices and the stored data we seek, the internet wouldn’t be much of a ‘net at all, but more like a printed telephone directory the size of a city block, set in 6-point Helvetica, written in Klingonese.
Our digital lives would be dull indeed. Instead, the internet is dynamic, interactive, startlingly efficient, and capable of sorting useful data from the planet-wide noise. What makes that all happen are APIs.
What’s an API?
APIs make possible all the dynamic interactivity we’ve come to expect from the internet.
The letters stand for “application programming interface.” In its most recognizable use, an API is software that sends requests for information to a server and returns that information in a usable form. For example: Airlines maintain the massive amounts of data — flight schedules, seat availability, pricing — which online travel services like Travelocity and Google Flights pull together for us using the airlines’ APIs. The metaphor for APIs used in an explainer video by Mulesoft, a leader in API development and training, is that of a restaurant server who tells the kitchen what we’ve ordered from the menu, then brings us what we ordered.
Throughout the entire online universe, APIs mediate the interactions between all applications, data and devices. APIs provide the connectivity we depend upon. Which is why APIs have been called “the foundation of the digital economy.”
APIs can be open (public) or private. APIs can make proprietary data available to consumer-facing applications, or they can put to use internal data strictly for an organization’s own employees. An API may be for a web-based system, an operating system, a database system, computer hardware, or a software library, according to Wikipedia.
An example of how APIs can work with operating systems is Microsoft’s enabling older applications to run on newer versions of Windows using their “Compatibility Mode” setting. It essentially comes down to a backward-compatible API, particularly within their Windows API (Win32) library. Even cutting and pasting text or images on your computer depends on APIs — in that case, at the level of your computer’s operating system.
When you change the thermostat in your house using the mobile device of your choice, you’re demonstrating why the IoT universe is also dependent upon APIs. It would be a challenge to overstate the importance and ubiquity of this connective tissue of the Earth’s digital skin.
I work for a small company. Why should I care about APIs?
The real question is, What is an API’s value to businesses? The short answer is that APIs engender innovation and enable business to flourish.
Mulesoft provides an example of how an API can enable businesses that would be hard to improve upon:
Take the hypothetical case of a national auto insurance provider. Over the years, as part of its normal business operations and planning, it has assembled and maintained comprehensive, detailed, and up-to-date data on the quality and condition of local roads all across the country. By making this previously internal data publicly accessible through an API, the company unleashes the creativity of developers and related businesses to devise new uses for the data. Developers create apps that recommend driving routes based in part on road quality. Civic groups develop apps that empower citizens to band together and petition local officials for better funding of transit infrastructure. The insurance company itself gives potential customers a way to get rate quotes — whenever they want, and from wherever they happen to be — through web and mobile apps. Simply exposing this previously isolated and hidden data through a public API has given the insurance company a powerful way to extend its reach to thousands of new customers — who now regularly connect with the company in a more personal, meaningful way.
Pretty cool, huh? Uber’s founders didn’t have to reinvent the wheel by developing its own online map. Google had already done that and developed APIs that give other companies access to their mapping data (as well as plenty of security on the back end). Similarly, the ability to create a user account on an external site using your Facebook credentials is made possible using Facebook’s open API.
Facebook is now taking an API-first approach to fighting abusive political ads. In late August 2018, Facebook introduced the Ad Archive API. Through the API, researchers and journalists can analyze ads that contain political or content of national importance, and developers gain access to ad data including the ad creator, content, recipient, impressions, target demographic and more.
APIs enable businesses to leverage their data in innovative new enterprises.
So open APIs are especially important for proliferating innovation and adding value to companies’ core business. Businesses leverage the great number of freelance developers who create valuable new applications without the companies having to invest directly in development.
Because APIs allow tech companies to interact so heavily, APIs are the catalysts that create business ecosystems. APIs effectively drop the barriers to revenue-earning, which is why Forbes writer Louis Columbus dubbed 2017 the Year of the API Economy.
How did APIs come about?
“API-first” companies arose soon after 2005, pioneered by companies like Twilio, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Twilio is credited with breaking new ground in 2008 for an entirely new industry of API-first companies. Two years later, IFTTT “put the internet to work” for us by creating tasks resulting in actions with the simple “if this then that” structure. In 2011, Zapier appeared. Often described as a translator between web APIs, Zapier connects apps to automate workflows and increase productivity. Growing from a handful of APIs in 2005, today ProgrammableWeb’s API directory lists nearly 20,000 public APIs.
Among the most popular APIs today are
- Pointer.gr API. Pointer.gr is a Greek web hosting and domain service that offers domain hosting, reseller hosting, web hosting, cloud servers, streaming, SSL, and web designer services. The Pointer.gr API allows users to offer clients mass registration, renewal, registrar change, registrar transfer and domain name services and Shared hosting services;
- AddLingo API. AddLingo, a cloud-based SaaS that could help developers to create application and games more efficiently. AddLingo API is about localization for apps and games; and
- EdX Course Structure API. EdX Course Structure API allows developers to integrate EdX course structure interfaces into their applications, enabling their users to use the feature directly. EdX is a provider of online classes covering many different topics.
(For those serious about getting their heads around the nature and potential of APIs, check out ProgrammableWeb’s seven-part course, APIs 101, part of the core curriculum to their API University.)
In late 2016, Iddo Gino reported in Medium, “Over $500 million was invested in companies where the primary business model was an API, or an application programming interface.” He went on to say, “In 2016, we saw three important things happen in the API space:
- “Multiple API-focused companies (Twilio, SendGrid and Stripe) crossed the $1 billion threshold, proving the API economy is here to stay.
- “Some bigger companies moved into using APIs for their software, showing APIs are reliable and scalable.
- “A lot of tools and aggregators have been created around APIs, giving developers more access to them.”
A sampling of API companies today
While Amazon, Google and Facebook remain the big dogs on the API block, the rise of the API economy predictably meant the rise of third-party, API-focused companies. The rate at which API-focused startups are being founded has accelerated in the past few years. Here’s a sampling of companies large and small:
Twilio. “Twilio’s cloud platform handles text messages, phone calls, videos, and other content for app developers via APIs,” according to Yahoo Finance, and demand for their services is booming despite some concerning net losses over the past year and a 220 percent growth in stock value.
Tisane Labs. Tisane Labs’ Text Analysis API, debuting in August 2018, is a natural-language processing API that “analyzes input text content, returning a wealth of metadata in JSON. The API allows extracting actionable intelligence from text in 27 languages, tagging abuse, fine-grained sentiment, topics, phrases, grammar, and more.
Stripe, founded 2010, provides a set of unified APIs and the banking, fraud-prevention, and technical infrastructure required to instantly enable businesses to accept and manage online payments.
SendGrid is a customer-communication platform for transactional and marketing email. Founded in 2009 and incubated through the TechStars accelerator program, SendGrid has raised over $81 million as of 2017 and went public that year.
Chatler.ai. Chatler’s Chat API, launched in 2018, “is a platform meant to assist chat agents with AI powered response recommendations in order to increase productivity,” according to ProgrammableWeb. “This REST API returns JSON formatted messages, recommendations, and topic searches. Chatler.ai allows users to save frequent replies for easier management of brand pages, and offers a free basic starter plan.”
Vericred. The Vericred API, listed by ProgrammableWeb in May 2018, “returns health insurance data including medical plans, dental plans, vision plans, coverage, drugs, networks, and providers. Vericred provides health insurance data solutions.”
Tracking the influence and importance of innovation technologies like APIs is among the many contributions we at tekMountain make to synergizing tech ecosystems everywhere. Keep your eyes on this blog for continuing perspectives on critical spaces where your success may thrive.