March 3, 2011

Charles Darwin and APIs

Last summer in San Francisco, Sam Ramji exposed the analogies between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the appearance of API (Application Programming Interface). In the context of the dynamic web this raises interesting questions: How should a company adapt to pressures from the triangle social-mobile-cloud? One company could be a perfect fit for the Web but not for mobile, for example. Do different interfaces (tablets, connected objects, etc..), require the same positioning? What about the social aspects?

Today consumers have more fragmented interests, and markets are constantly evolving to become more specialized. Opportunities are quickly filled, and traditional company processes appear slow and out-dated.

Companies can address this reality by encouraging external development and innovation and pushing for quicker turnover, lower costs, and boldness when facing risks. To create this ecosystem, a company needs an API and developers who can take, manipulate and mix the data of the organization. If given this freedom, developers can provide the link between your consumers and your data. This is where new business opportunities emerge, and developers will be the powerhouse of innovation for your company, driving refills, flexibility, and adaptability.

Data is the new business model

Irrespective of a company’s products, users, interactions, or production environment, it is the company’s data that has value. It is key to learn how to measure this value and assess the leverage it could build.

Simply making this data available is not enough. The structure of an API needs to be carefully thought: concise documentation, logical interfaces, and showing many examples are a few important features.

Opening your data will help you organize interfaces, promote your brand, and ultimately will bring you savings.

The example of Twitter is a classic. By building an ecosystem around its API, Twitter accelerated innovation, and solidified its relations with power users. Twitter pushed this even more by building its own service on top their API. On the same principle of DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) well known among developers, it is possible for one to use Twitter’s API to build and deliver content to different interfaces, in accordance with COPE (Create Once and Publish Everywhere).

The success of Twitter is fundamentally linked to its API, allowing numerous third party applications. Today organizations as diverse as: The New-York Times, Netflix, Compete, and have their own API. The quality, viability and utility of this data impacts the company that publishes it. Also developers greatly need new sources of data with which they can enrich previous data sources and create mash-ups. This has led to an explosion of iPhone, iPad, Android apps. It is here that the change of flow of data has been most visible.

Data as a Service

The number of available APIs keeps growing, with at least 30,000 currently accessible. Data Market places, which deliver data to developers and creative minds, are becoming more and more popular. Maybe the next Google is to be found in Infochimps or Factual. Another proof of the API-boom is the rise of companies like Apigee, Mashery or 3scale, that offer to develop and maintain a company’s API.

The real opportunity for developers comes from the possibility of mashing many different sources. What bridges between these datasets will become the successes of tomorrow? What mashups will be praised by end consumers?

API is not only a technical gap, it’s an economical jump. Just as the richness of our genetic code allows us to generate many different variations, the real value of an API is all the different usages and services it facilitates.

From this perspective, genes and data prove to be comparable. Evolution relies on genetic mixing in order for a species to adapt and survive, in the same way that APIs open immense new opportunities for a company.

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