Climbing aboard the API juggernaut


By Will Bosma
Thursday, 07 May, 2015

Climbing aboard the API juggernaut

The term API (application programming interface) is one that's increasingly being heard at many levels within organisations. From boardrooms to developer teams, the potential benefits APIs can deliver are becoming more widely understood.

To ensure these benefits are maximised, many organisations are creating API strategy roles, while others are leveraging internal champions to ensure their API strategies are on track.

But for many others, it's still very early days when it comes to understanding what their APIs can do and how best to put them to work. The bottom line is that your API is a new product that represents a significant business opportunity. As such, it needs to be planned in the same detail as any new business venture.

Having 'no strategy' is not an option

For an example of a successful API, you need look no further than the wildly popular social networking site Twitter. Its API has become one of the most successful in history, thanks to thousands of developers creating an application ecosystem around the service.

However, Twitter's search for a sustainable business model has caused problems along the way. As pressure from investors mounted for the company to figure out how it was going to make money, it repeatedly changed its usage policies - to the detriment of its ecosystem. These changes included disallowing others to create applications that enabled users to publish and subscribe to feeds, so that Twitter could own the eyeballs and hopefully grow advertising revenue.

Twitter also started locking down access to the 'fire-hose' - the public feed of everything - used by companies to monitor trends and provide sentiment analysis for everything from political campaigns and brands to celebrities and TV shows.

Now, the early adopters that gravitated to Twitter are also the ones looking for something new, in part because of how such changes have affected them. If Twitter had had a strategy for its API upfront, the company might be in better shape right now.

To avoid the pitfalls that have caused Twitter to stumble, organisations should plan their API strategy by considering the following five aspects:

1. Pick a business model. APIs are an opportunity to drive new channels of business. As such, you need to understand what you will offer, who your audience is and how important your offering is to that audience. Some companies - such as Google and eBay - have offered free APIs for a while, but increasingly companies are realising certain types of data and functionality are worth paying for.

There are already lots of business models in use, such as Free, Developer Pays, Developer Gets Paid and Indirect. Choose the one that best suits your organisation.

2. Understand your audience. As with any new product, you need to understand who your customer base will be and how you'll reach them. It's not enough just to say you want 'developers'. In reality, your API usage will be driven by companies that can leverage it to their advantage. So the question is, which segments and/or companies have the most to gain from your API?

3. Plan your marketing and community strategy. Many organisations considering an API strategy will not have created a product before. The challenge with APIs is that there are potentially two audiences you need to reach: the business owner, who has the need; and the developer, who will work with the API. These strategies can be split into 'marketing' and 'community'. Both are important.

Depending on what your API offers, you'll need to 'solution sell' to help potential customers understand the value it can deliver. Many organisations are just starting their journey into an API-centric world, so you'll need to cut through marketing hype to engage them. Meanwhile, your community strategy should focus on engaging the developers that will use your API. Those that have a loyal and vibrant community succeed; others die on the vine.

4. Be a good citizen. It's really hard to get an API right first time around, and it's not easy to change an API if you have traction. Plus, you'll be competing with everyone else to get the right expertise to deliver an API in this emerging market.

Developers like APIs that are 'good citizens'. This means the API has good documentation; the sign-up process and security is standard and transparent; the API is discoverable through a console; there is a way to run tests against it; and it has a well-defined versioning and change control policy. This is a lot to get right. It's also better to start small but think big - start with a simple API and graduate to offering a wider set of services - than to try and do it all at once.

5. Have an operational plan. For most organisations, the only experience they have of running a public service is their own website. The operational side of publishing an API is often overlooked by the implementation team, but it's critical to success. IT operations will typically take charge of the API infrastructure and will need to ensure it is secure, reliable and available. Smaller companies may choose to work with a partner.

API adoption is the key

Of course, there's little point in developing a great API if no one puts it to use. With the number of APIs growing daily, it's important to ensure yours is effective, it's easy to implement and it stands out from the crowd. Some of the factors to consider include:

Have good documentation: Most developers don't read documentation, but in API land it's a necessity. The more complete and to-the-point your API documentation is, the better for the developer.

Include a console: In recent years, some of the more popular APIs have been offering interactive API consoles that allow developers to explore an API by sending requests to it. If done well, an API console and the documentation can be merged into a living document where developers can read about an API and test it in one place.

Remember the client: Working with the raw API is fine, but many developers prefer to work with an API client written for their language of choice. Quite often API providers don't provide clients, instead relying on the developer community to maintain the clients, which can lead to a poor user experience.
Provide a sandbox: A sandbox allows a developer to test against an API without affecting a live system. For free APIs, such as social media, developers just create extra accounts for testing. But paid APIs - such as SaaS APIs - don't usually offer a sandbox, which makes it very hard for developers to build applications without testing it with live production data.

It's an exciting time as the business world moves rapidly into an API-centric era. New products, business models and channels will be defined that open up more possibilities than we can imagine. Those who treat their API strategy as important will stay in the game and gain a competitive advantage, while many who don't will risk falling by the wayside. Your API may be your most successful product - treat it as such.

Will Bosma is Vice President Asia Pacific for MuleSoft, responsible for leading the company's expansion in the region and providing organisations with integration platforms for connecting applications, data sources and APIs in the cloud or on-premises.

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