The API is the Invisible Hand Behind the Internet of Things
Test and Monitor | Posted June 04, 2015

When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that the scanners at K-mart were manned by little elves. Now I know better. Unlike this fantasy elf-driven world, the application programming interface or API is really the driving force behind today’s scanners, tracking that can of Mountain Dew along the supply chain from factory to boxes to checkout to when I use my Android to scan the QR code to learn more about that mysterious yellow dye. What we’ve generically dubbed the Internet of Things is actually a lot the work of APIs, working to connect electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to actual “things,” in a broad effort to bring online that which was previously offline.

The Impact of the Internet of Everything

Not to be ignored, Cisco predicts what it refers to as the Internet of Everything will be a staggering $19 trillion business by 2020, having an impact on society five or even ten times stronger than the Internet itself.

Fascinated by—and a bit scared of—this connected world, I endeavoured to talk to some of the leading influencers in the rapidly expanding world of the Internet of Things. This piece came out of more than half a year of annoying questions and fascinating answers. Hope you enjoy!

Is It Hardware or Software?

There’s no doubt that it is becoming more and more challenging to distinguish between the cloud and hardware. The most famous was perhaps Google’s $3.2 billion bet last year on the smart thermometer Nest. Well, is Nest hardware or software? It’s both.

“That’s the evolution that you'll see. You’ll see stodgy old products that aren’t really integrated with anything and these really innovative SaaS [Software as a Service] products that are integrated to everything.”

Joel York of Chaotic Flow

Of course, Nest is the latter. Plus, it’s probably a safe bet to buy hardware from Tony Fadell, that same guy who designed the iPod. York also talked about Cantaloupe Systems, SaaS to optimize all things vending machines, including real-time feedback and the goal of eliminating those pesky crinkled bills and coins from the process.

They are still going to be called SaaS but these guys have to plug into the vending machines and on a smartphone.

Salesforce announced last year that it is teaming with Accenture to become the name in wearables for the business world, focusing first on building the Salesforce Wear Developer Pack, which will help wearable tech companies build onto the Salesforce 1 Platform.

All of this out-of-the-box hardware has to communicate with a server somewhere, meaning the lines between hardware and software will continue to blur with IoT.

The Possibilities of IoT Are as Limitless as the Imagination

As head of APIs and integrations at Redbooth, Bruno Pedro once said to me, “Eventually, everything will talk to each other in the end-user world.” Well, it’s starting to seem like it’ll be sooner rather than later.

Pedro put it best when describing how the Internet of Things will come soon to a town near you: “This will get really big when you as a citizen will probably not notice anything happening, but all these governments and city councils will start developing and installing devices in the city. Sensors to figure out if a light bulb is dead and someone has to replace it. Traffic. And all these sensors and all these devices will have to be connected somehow." APIs and SaaS will be that glue.

"What I see happening is a kind of convergence happening in a few years. You as a citizen will have access to multiple applications, wearables, things inside your home, and devices that are operating in your city and you can eventually integrate these things together," Pedro continued.

John Harmon, API Designer for Paypal, said we will become “not only more personally efficient, but safer in more and more things.” He offered the example of how we were taught “Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot,” but then how we still had to learn that ouchy lesson for ourselves. “But now those things won’t do it. Now the stove will know you are near and stop being hot.”

When I asked if he thought that means we’ll just become a dumber populace that lacks common sense, he argued that “not many people have the ability to raise their own animals, slaughter them, cook, etc.,” contending that widespread acceptance of IoT could mean the final stage of specialization. “This is the evolution of society to find what we are really really good at, and the rest of our lives we contract out."

Pedro similarly agrees that information specialization is the wave of the future. He shared the example of how energy companies today charge different rates for different times of the day and year. "Imagine that I have a restaurant and I want to operate my machines at a different time of day and want to do something different related to the pricing of energy," he said. "There will be a lot of information producers and there will be lots more information consumers, people, companies or even other devices that consume this information—and all these things need to be integrated."

VP of strategic research at Salesforce, Peter Coffee said, “Imagine a bunch of people go to a sporting event. In their nav system, how interesting would it be if roadside advertising were dynamically adjusting its content to reflect measured data of passing vehicles,” advertising pre- and post-game happy hours. General Motors owns this patent. Coffee continued. “GM, their biggest asset is the attention span of an owner of a vehicle—the last undeveloped attention span in the human race is focused on driving.”

Coffee argued, at this point, no matter what sort of business you are running these days, if you are creating a list of competitors, “if you don't have Google, Amazon, Ebay or Square on your list, you aren’t thinking broadly enough about where your next competitor might arrive.”

Is the Internet of Things Just Another Tool for the Data Economy?

Will the device and its connectivity really matter or will the data it generates be the true power of the Internet of Things? Of course, Google was originally built on a business model of selling ads and Amazon of selling books, but both dot-com giants are finding much more lucrative opportunity in big data.

API software consultant and founder of LaunchAny, James Higginbotham puts IoT into two categories: “The sensors and the devices that produce or sample data and report back, and those [that] operate on a producer data and you have other consumers listening to. And then there are other IoT devices that are kind of a hybrid...they either aggregate data and make use of it, and contextualize and summarize it.”

Crowdsourcing of traffic data has been around for a couple years now, as your Android phone picks up city traffic data via your Google Maps connection and personal cars and commercial trucks have built-in sensors offering real-time data.

Similarly, PressureNet invites Android users to join in its consolidation of real-time big data for precise weather and air quality reports, all via within atmospheric sensors that could already be on your phone.

The opportunity to leverage generated data is also viable within one of the fastest growing areas of IoT and wearables—the healthcare industry.

“If you’re looking at what Apple’s doing with Home Kit or Health Kit, these sort of hubs around home automation and health automation, your FitBit and health tracking, the key behind all that is APIs,” John Musser, founder of ProgrammableWeb, said. To users, “it’s neither here nor there that it’s APIs, that’s an implementation detail to them. What they do care is that there’s an enabler and APIs are that enabler.”

But the potentiality of big data isn’t just about decreasing your commute time or shaping your Buns of Steel, it’s about truly improving quality of life, whether on a micro or macro level. This data will not only be shared with the city government but also with the citizens themselves and with businesses that can offer alternatives and solutions.

Within an IoT world fueled by APIs, the parent of an asthmatic child can plan a weekend of indoor activities when air quality is poor while a delivery company can save money optimizing traffic routes.

“The Internet of Things will help us prevent environmental disasters—the ability to sense what’s happening before it happens, to sense what’s shifting to show people ‘Look you can’t put it off anymore’,” Harmon predicted.

Does IoT Just Mean a Loss of Privacy?

But Harmon warns that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. “I don’t even like bringing up IoT. For press, it’s first-generation... throw-away devices. If you look at it holistically, and you try to be future-minded...these are not even toes in the water of having everything connected.”

Harmon of course was talking about the disconcerting capacity for surveillance and loss of privacy.

At last year’s Smart City Expo here in Barcelona, Thale’s Sebastien Sabatier talked about how, between 2009 and 2011, Mexico City DF used criminal analysis and face recognition to scan the faces of more than 22 million people via 15,000 cameras, as well as a gunshot detector linked to move cameras in the direction of shots heard. He boasted a 32.6 percent reduction in crime, 50 percent decrease in stolen cars, and police response time was cut down to a quarter of previous years all because of the world’s most ambitious security program. But, like at least at every talk I attended during the three-day conference, there was never a mention of privacy.

The Future of the Internet of Things

The invisible hand behind the The Internet of Things—APIs—are what’s connecting it all. We’ve only caught a glimpse of what the IoT has to offer, still in its infancy with throwaway devices like watches, but the next generation will be when it all gets really interesting, as APIs build a previously unimaginably interconnected world.

In the not-so-distant future:

  1. The lines will further blur between hardware and software.
  2. From utilities to cities to your health and home, there’s a market for IoT in pretty much any industry.
  3. The seamless invisibility of APIs will define a good user experience.
  4. The Internet of Things will be a strong driver of the data economy.
  5. But all of this at what cost?

APIs are like the elves working behind the scenes to connect our world, doing almost everything but making the cookies. What do YOU think they’ll do next?

About The Author


A Jersey girl living in Barcelona, Jennifer Riggins is a writer, marketer and luddite in the tech space, delighted to help SaaS and API startups better sell the benefits they have to offer.

Twitter: @jkriggins


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