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What the hell is an API and why the hell should you care?

As more and more of our computing migrates to the “cloud,” that amorphous nowhere lying just on the unknown side of our Internet connection, you as a business owner or entrepreneur will start hearing more and more about API’s. No, API’s are not bees buzzing about the Internet cloud (for both the readers of this blog that are fluent in Latin), but rather interfaces that allow programmers hither and yon to develop applications, add-ons, improvements, or plug-ins to existing platforms or programs.

From a programmer’s point of view, an API is simply a set of programming routines, data structures, libraries, objects, and other programming mumbo-jumbo. An API is the set of “rules” programmers have to follow if their program is going to work with the system or application. Microsoft Windows has an API; Macintoshes have an API; iPhones have an API; Facebook has an API; Google Maps has an API; and so on.

Why should you care? If you’re a tech entrepreneur, the answer’s obvious. An API is the doorway to product development. The more open that door, the more opportunities are available to convert ideas into viable products.

But what if your start-up is way out of the tech world? Say, you’re selling dog-sledding equipment and bric-a-brac on the Web? When you read that Google Analytics has just released its API, why should that even cross your line of sight? “Here’s a quarter. Call someone who cares.”

Well, you should probably care if you’re in the market for software.

Simply put, an API, like the iPhone API, or the Microsoft Windows API, or the Playstation API, suffers one of three fates. The owner of the API can keep it secret from everyone, so only that one company can develop programs for the platform. Or the company can release the API only to developers it approves of (like Microsoft with the XBox API). Or the company can release the API to the public at large, allowing anyone with world enough and time to develop applications for the platform.

Apple, for instance, decided to publicly release the API for the iPhone rather than pick and choose developers (which is how it managed the Macintosh). The publicly-released API and the more or less democratic iPhone Apps store allowed for the Noah’s flood of iPhone applications that is quickly drowning hapless competitors like Blackberry.

Blackberry, in their less than infinite wisdom, chose to protect its API and release it only to select developers.

iPhone = thousands and thousands of applications, most of them for the phenomenally low price of free. Hell, you can even find sniper range-finding iPhone apps! Just in case you need to pick off a few long-range targets.
Blackberry = dozens of applications, most of which you have to pay for.

Which would you choose? Well, thousands of consumers are voting “iPhone” because of the rich diversity of applications. In fact, iPhone Apps have become a major time-wasting hobby among iPhone users (one reason I won’t buy an iPhone is that I know I will positively LOVE it and diddle, doodle, and daddle with it all day long rather than get my work done).

So Blackberry, a day late and many dollars short, decided to release their API to the public at large.

So, who the hell bloody cares? What does that have to do with selling dog-sledding equipment?

Simply this: as you consider Web-based applications versus desktop applications, or you start picking and choosing amongst applications, the status of the API is one of the key considerations. If the application works with a proprietary API in limited release, you’re not going to see many improvements, upgrades, or developments.

If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with an application with a publicly-released API, then there’s a good chance that the market will be flooded with add-ons, upgrades, additions, and even whole new applications. In other words, a publicly-released API means it’s more likely you’ll get what you need at some date.

If you’re on Facebook, have you ever wondered why your friends keep peppering you with silly quizzes (what kind of intestinal worm are you)? It’s because the Facebook API is publicly available and really, really, really simple to write applications for (it’s what’s called REST, which, if you’re non-tech, simply means that it is almost as easy to produce as a Web page — that’s why there’s so many Facebook quizzes).

But let’s get serious about your Web-based dog-sledding and pulling business.

Let’s say you’re in the market for a content management system to manage your dog-sledding product catalog and run a dog-sledding/dog-pulling blog. Do you choose a proprietary ecommerce system that comes with a content management system allowing you to manage an online product catalog and blog? Or do you fork over some bucks for a proprietary CMS like Adobe Contribute? Or do you do the extra work and put your catalog and blog up on a CMS like Drupal or Mambo?

They all have their advantages and disadvantages.

The ecommerce proprietary software gives you an all-in-one package in which all the integration between catalog and purchasing has been done for you. Adobe Contribute is incredibly easy to use.

But Drupal and Mambo, besides being free, have an open API. Anyone in the world anywhere can develop add-ons and upgrades. If you go with a propietary ecommerce CMS — or Adobe Contribute — you get what the developer decides you’re getting. No more. No less. If it meets your current needs, great. If your business grows some new needs, then you’re out of luck.

But with Mambo or Drupal (or Joomla), you get a content management system that you can configure to meet your current needs. Because there are so many Mambo, Joomla, or Drupal developers out there cranking out plug-ins and add-ons, if your business grows, chances are there’s something out there to meet your changing needs.

We here at Shoestring Venture, for instance, chose WordPress for our blogging CMS. Why? Because of the open API; there are literally thousands of little add-ons and plug-ins to meet any need we have for the blog. For the same reason, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and most other major media outlets have scrapped their fancypants blogging systems and switched over to humble little (and free) WordPress over the past 18 months. The open API gives anyone with an idea the ability to produce a plug-in and gives all the users access to any tool they need. Even though it’s free, WordPress is the most fully-featured blogging software in the Milky Way. Just like Facebook is the most quiz-packed social network in the Milky Way. Cause lots of people out there are cranking out add-ons.

In other words, the arcana of the API often means the difference between outgrowing the software solution you’ve chosen or having that software grow with you. You may find a software package to be somewhat spare when you check it out. The open API, however, may mean that the package will skyrocket in functionality and features.

What does it matter that Google Analytics has released their API? It means that Google Analytics — free, Web-based software that allows you to track the usage of your Web site — may soon look, feel, and function like the biggest and baddest Web analytics software out there. The kind that would cost you thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. It means that Google Analytics, which, to my mind, is suitable for low-level Web businesses, may soon be good enough to handle any Web business needs of whatever size.

And that, my friends, is why API should cross your line of vision. You don’t want to make the wrong choice and get stung.

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3 Responses to “What the hell is an API and why the hell should you care?”


  1. [...] « What the hell is an API and why the hell should you care? [...]

  2. [...] its “stream” API to developers. For the proud non-geeks among us, I have a handy-dandy explanation of APIs and why they matter right here in this little green acre of blog [...]

  3. [...] since Facebook released its API (this is why you should care), all us dedicated Facebookers have been deluged with oceans of the most trivial time-wasters [...]

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