APIS…What, How, and Why Now?
Synergy, Integration, Dashboard, Millennials, Bandwidth, Scalability… and now introducing… (drumroll please)… “APIs”.
Indeed, no current list of buzzwords is complete without the most important acronym since IOU: A-P-I.
But what is an API, how can it help transform your business, and most importantly why does having an API strategy matter?
Well, to go along with our buzzword theme, let’s see if we can’t unpack this.
What is an API?
API stands for Application Programming Interface.
Δεν καταλαβαίνω αυτό -This is ACTUAL Greek.
If you’re new to the world of APIs, that first sentence probably meant about as much as the second, but stick with me, it’s not nearly as complicated, or boring, as it sounds (unless of course you speak Greek – in which case Yiamas! – stick with me anyway).
Applications are familiar to most of us; they are the lifeblood of our smartphones and play a large role in our daily lives. Programming is how developers structure and relay instructions to computers, and an Interface is simply a common boundary between two applications that allows each to communicate with the other.
An API is basically a way for developers to communicate with outside applications, in order to cross-leverage their products/services, using an agreed upon format and process. To quote Kevin Stanton (API Chapter Manager at Sprout Social):
“[An] API is a precise specification written by providers of a service that programmers must follow when using that service. It describes what functionality is available, how it must be used and what formats it will accept as input or return as output.”
Every time you want to retrieve data from an application, an API call must made. However, since the API has a set of pre-defined rules, there are limits on the types and amount of data that an application will grant you access to. In order to access this data, you need to follow the format exactly.
Think of it this way; you want to get in touch with a friend in a foreign country. You have several different communication options available: you could call, text, email, Snapchat, Facebook or even (gasp) write a letter. It doesn’t matter which one you decide to use; the only thing that matters is that you follow the proper protocol for transmitting messages specific to the solution you selected. You can’t write a letter on Snapchat, and you can’t transmit a voice call over email. In the digital world, APIs are the transmitters, if you want to use them you have to adhere to the correct format.
How can APIs help your business?
Integration, Integration, Integration. The number one way implementing an API strategy can help your firm is by increasing the opportunities for, and depth of, integration with other applications and platforms. For example, Lucy’s Neighborhood Diner recently set up their first website. Let’s compare what their website would look like utilizing an API driven strategy versus a non-API strategy.
Lucy’s Neighborhood Diner (API driven strategy)
- They can embed the API from Open Table to allow patrons to make and modify reservations online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- They can embed the Yelp API to include recent customer reviews on their site
- They can embed the Facebook API to allow customers to like Lucy’s Facebook page right from her home page
- They can embed the Google Maps API to make it easy for new customers to get turn by turn directions to Lucy’s
- Mobile: all of these services would be available on Lucy’s mobile app
Lucy’s Neighborhood Diner (Non-API strategy)
- They can put their phone number on the website so customers can call to make reservations (as long as it’s not too busy to answer, too noisy to hear and it’s still open)
- They can post comment cards on a corkboard at the diner with recent customer reviews (this means they get to use thumbtacks, which is always fun, unless you drop those clear ones)
- They can mention on their website that customers should log in to Facebook, search for Lucy’s (no, not the one at the top, different Lucy, different neighborhood) and “Like” their page
- They can have Ethan (Lucy’s artistic 4 year old nephew) draw a map from Gammie’s house to the Dyner (he spells it with a Y but hey, he’s 4) and paste this on their website as their directions to Lucy’s
- Mobile: The third most populous city in the state of Alabama, and its only saltwater port! (This is about as Mobile as it gets without APIs)
This is a fictional example, but it does highlight the extreme value which can be achieved from an integration standpoint by leveraging an API strategy.
Why is an API strategy so important?
As I mentioned in the previous sections, the number one reason all firms should have an API strategy is because of the proliferation of mobile technology. The mobile application architecture is a more strictly delineated client/server model of development where all the interactions with an application occur on the user’s device (client side), and the actual tasks and/or services are executed on the application server before the results are delivered back to the user’s device. In this model, it is the APIs that serve as the link between client and server.
If you’re not engaging with your clients in the mobile arena, you are limiting your opportunities for success. If you don’t have the ability to integrate APIs then you have no way to develop or support a mobile experience. Applications can use APIs on the front end to help guide user experience, on the back end to connect data and/or services, and on the side to enable other applications to connect to their internal data/services.
A few years ago, First Rate developed a mobile application that could be deployed to Advisors in the field. As part of the development effort, we realized we would need to create a suite of reusable API calls to deploy with the application so it could actually connect to our databases and display the data that Advisors need to present. We continued to tweak the calls and found that with some minor changes, we were able to make the calls useable in any client region.
As a legacy of this effort, we developed base API calls that we make available to all of our clients as part of their package. If you’re interested in what these calls return and require – parameter wise – head over to www.firstrateapi.com to take a tour of the calls as well as our sample dashboard. By making these calls available to all of our clients, we are enabling them to extend functionality usually found only in First Rate applications to applications that they’re developing in-house or in conjunction with third- party developers. Although we did not originally embark on a mission to develop APIs, we soon found that the inclusion of an API strategy would be key in continuing to position ourselves as an industry leader.