Yesterday I marched over to the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge to listen in on the great discussions at the annual MassTLC Software Development Summit. This smallish (about 200 people) developer event, covered a lot of ground, but it was the final panel discussion of the day (moderated by SmartBear's own Lorinda Brandon) that really opened my eyes to the evolution that has just begun in the world of APIs.
The topic of this particular session was "The API Revolution." I know, it sounds a bit dramatic. But the more I listened, the more I started to picture all of us as revolutionaries, hidden in a quiet building over-looking the Charles River in the 1770s, going over our plan to throw a boatload of British tea into the harbor the following evening.
Sorry, back to the APIs.
The discussion was going as expected, with both Lorinda and the audience asking compelling questions about monetizing APIs, possible security issues that stem from opening up your data to the public and measuring return on investment (R.O.I.) of opening up your APIs. In return, the panelists were succinctly answering these questions from their own companies' point-of-views, with the general theme being that they were all initially very hesitant to freely open their code for the world to see. I learned that, in many cases, teams would take a very different approach to developing APIs if they were to start from scratch today, but managing legacy APIs is a key part of the challenge facing developers today.
"It's more work to expose it. And then when you go fix the code base later it's more work to fix it," explained panelist Kevin O'Brien, Sr. Director for AppConnect at Constant Contact. "But we ultimately did make those trade-offs, because it's valuable enough to get it out there so we can start to build some business around it."
At this point, a man with thick rimmed glasses spoke up from the back of the room (I immediately decided to call him Paul Revere in my head) and asked the question that really brought the whole idea of an API revolution to the forefront:
"Fifteen years ago, all of the online writers ... were asking the R.O.I. question: 'should we build a website?' So, I understand why you're asking the question today. But, panelists, do you think that opening up APIs is the natural evolution of business, and that at some point in the future the question will actually be, 'What's the R.O.I. of NOT opening your API?' because it may be a competitive disadvantage," asked Mr. Revere.
This very quickly took the discussion from the current state of the API world to the notion that what we're doing today will greatly impact the status of APIs a decade from now. This sparked a mini-discussion about what type of APIs should be written when trying to increase external adoption. When Lorinda polled the audience about how many were still using SOAP rather than REST, only three hands went up. The group unanimously agreed that REST APIs were easy to implement and understand, and in fact, Chris Caruso, chief technology officer at BrainShark, indicated that when they shifted from SOAP to REST, the uptick in their API adoption was remarkable.
While SOAP may still be a viable alternative for internal use, REST is what the market is looking for. It’s clean, it’s easy, it’s fast. While that may seem like common sense to most of the developers out there, it is a key concept for the business side to understand. If you see your APIs as a competitive advantage, which everyone in the room said they did, you need to deliver what the market wants.
Then it happened: Lorinda started asking questions about monitoring APIs, marketing APIs and the SLAs used by each panelist's company.
This is where the revolution stumbled a bit. Everything had been going so well. This great revolution was at our collective doorstep. We had all of our muskets and pitchforks ready to go. Everyone in the room had been excitedly talking about firing at all cylinders, about how they were letting the public use their APIs and about opening up more APIs in the future. But without including long-term strategy in the conversation, it's like we, as an industry, are starting a revolution with no defensive plan. We have no spies on the other side keeping us up-to-date on how it was going. We're just going to shoot until we're out of ammo and then go home and hope it all works out.
Then, from the front of the room, a very simple statement brought up a point that is so obvious, but often overlooked.
"Not only do we need APIs, we need good APIs. We need easy-to-use APIs." Ahhh, welcome to the discussion, Thomas Jefferson.
The idea of ensuring the quality of APIs, and then marketing them as high-quality, is currently a secondary thought (if it's a thought at all) among companies currently releasing APIs. This truly is an industry-wide issue. And as Paul Revere called from the back of the room, the APIs are coming, and if your company is going to get top value from its APIs, it can't just release data to the world, put its feet up and expect everything to go smoothly.
Let me ask you this, would you ever release an untested app (or even a new feature) to the public without a marketing or monitoring strategy? Of course not. Your company spends months and months planning the release and doing everything it can to make sure the feature is utilized to the best of its ability. Why is this different from APIs?
As SmartBear's Niclas Reimertz explained to me when I first met him, APIs have gotten to the point where they are business critical, yet they don't really have tangible business value. Because of this, he says they "just have to work," meaning that companies have to make sure they are testing and monitoring their APIs constantly. Not only that, but it's also going to be essential for companies to create marketing strategies around their APIs in order to get as much value out of them as possible. This idea is something that is often talked about in the halls of SmartBear, though we've come to prefer the term, Golden Age of APIs. Whatever you want to call it, your company should be preparing its API strategy for the future, today.
So, I ask you, has your business strategized and planned for the Golden Age of APIs, or are you just planning to shoot from the hip and hope what follows will look more like a successful revolution than the end of the world?