The growing role of APIs in connecting apps and content


I spent a couple of days last week at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City. It's always fun and stimulating to attend these conferences and see what's new and exciting to think about, and one big takeaway was the growing role of APIs in sharing content and services in a world that's increasingly App-centric.

How do you get out of the box?

One of the major criticisms of the app world is that they create content silos, little boxes into which we place content and data, but they lack the linking ability of the traditional web. The question becomes, how do you escape the box to find other interesting content, or conversely how do you let other content inside the box. That's where APIs or Application Programming Interfaces come in.

Some simple examples

APIs provide a hook into another application. To understand the role of APIs, let's look at a couple of simple examples. Many websites today have a Tweet button to share content you find interesting on Twitter. This provides a link to the Twitter website from inside another site (or an App). You don't have to explicitly open up Twitter to access the application because the API does the work for you.

The Facebook "Like" button offers a similar kind of functionality to a social network. It links directly to your Facebook account and lets you "Like" something without actually opening Facebook to do it.

The advantages of apps

Sam Ramji, Vice President of Strategy for API management vendor Apigee, says Apps offer a number of advantages over a mobile website. "Apps will continue to have best binding to the unique capability of the mobile device." He explains that each phone has different capabilities--screen resolution, camera, GPS, compass--and each may, or may not, have these features and if they do, to different degrees.

Ramji says, "The way you program an app means that it's fully aware of the capabilities of the phone. My mobile website, even if it's tuned to Safari on an iPhone doesn't know any of those things."

Calling content

And it doesn't just have to be about calling a service like Facebook or Twitter. It could be to share content. Ramji likens these connections to RSS on steroids letting you incorporate content in an intelligent manner. One good example of this is the way the NYT incorporates content from other websites, displaying links to bloggers and Twitter streams referencing the article. By the same token, if you wish, as a content producer, you could let others share your content seamlessly on another site.

This is particularly interesting when we are seeing the likes of Rupert Murdoch trying to hide content behind pay walls, or publishers who see iPad and other tablets as a means of locking down content in content silos. Ramji looks at APIs like the ones his company develops and he sees the opposite.

He sees a powerful app-based mashup of content and services that provides a new means to share content wherever it lives. Websites certainly have their place and they will continue to co-exist with apps, but it's time to stop thinking of apps as content boxes. They have the potential to be so much more if we give them the APIs they need to work with others. - Ron