Do you know what are APIs?


You probably heard about APIs by now. But do you know what it means? In a quick google search, you can find out it stands for Application Programming Interface. It doesn’t say much, right? As in my job I hear a lot about it I have been trying to understand what it is with not much success, until last week in the OuiShare Fest in Paris. For my delight, they hosted a whole masterclass on it.

The masterclass had started before we entered the venue. Talking to my friend and colleague, Lenneke,  when she gave me her explanation of what an API is:

Apis act as the gatekeepers to a network, but to software iNstead.

The speakers of the masterclass went on to confirm her quote, but with several other examples. The main thing I have learned is that APIs aren’t complicated, what happens is that developers are the ones who use it, and me, as a non-developer, will probably never work with the API itself. That’s the reason why it was so complicated for me, because I never saw it or touched it, I only heard of it.

API 101

The first thing you need to know, I already said: if you are not a developer, you probably won’t see an API. It doesn’t mean you won’t use them. APIs mainly work as an interface for software. Picture your phone; you probably don’t really know what is going on inside it, so it responds to your touch. The secret is that you don’t need to know how it works to use it, because of its interface. You just touch something, and things happen.

The same goes for APIs. Developers don’t have to program thousand of lines to create the Facebook ‘like’ for example. They can just use its API. And that’s just small example; the truth is APIs surround you and it is already a part of the day-by-day of developers.

API, why use it?

The reason number one, from what I understood, is simply to save time from developers. As that is the most demanded profession nowadays, saving their time means gold. Another important thing to know is that as most of the people use open APIs, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the existing APIs are only utilized by the companies that created them.

There are many reasons why companies open their APIs for the rest of the world. Facebook, as I already gave an example, make their ‘like’ API open, so it increases the usage of their platform, and make them more relevant. Another reason is getting data. Remember Foursquare? Even though not a lot of people use it anymore, they were able to keep themselves updated and relevant by making their API available for free. Amazon, on another hand, doesn’t make most of their APIs open, but they exchange them between areas and departments. I mean, why do the work today that someone else already did yesterday, right? Or for the Dutch ‘Het wiel opnieuw uitvinden’?

API and design

During the masterclass, one of the highlights was the importance of designs when creating an API. As APIs act as an interface, one of the key elements for its success is that people understand them. Beyond that, it is important that when a company create several APIs that they follow the same design and logic. That is a big demand right now, someone who creates a kind of style guide for those functionalities, just as marketers create for brands. As it is a quite new market, there are lots of opportunities.

A 1,9 trillion market

Does that number sound exaggerated? Could be. But that’s what Zdenec Nemek, from Good API, said. The reason? APIs right now aren’t very smart, so there are really tons of potential. One of the biggest reasons for that according to Nemek, is that there are still a lot of human interaction with APIs. The potential is making them so smart that they can automate the connection between software. That means a software can recognize its own needs, find a match and incorporate it into itself all without human interaction. That’s when the future starts to get scary, right?

I will discuss this a bit further, but before I would like to through some light in another reason why there is so much potential in this market. The reason can be resumed in three words: smart home devices. As we focus a lot on smart phones and computer software, the numbers of smart home devices are increasing rapidly, and they also need programming and APIs. That means that to truly surf this wave, is important to remember that now we are not dealing only with smart phones, but with smart fridges, TVs, lighting, alarms, thermostat, speakers, washing machines, door keys, doorbell, magic carpets, basically everything you can think of. That’s a pretty big market, right?

What is left for the humans?

During the masterclass when they were talking about the potential of APIs for automation, a recurrent doubt popped into my mind: What jobs will be left for the humans? Mehdi Medjaoui, from APIdays, had a great answer. He told me and everyone in the masterclass that it is a political decision, companies can choose to go only for the money and fire everyone, or they can create human jobs. Jobs that require empathy. One example? Elderly care is a good one. As our population gets older, why not invest on that? What other jobs can you think that requires empathy, where the human capabilities can be put to better use?