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The Why and How of APIs: From App to Platform

Brian Mulloy
May 29, 2014

This is the first installment in a series of posts exploring why APIs are key to accelerating a digital business and how different API initiatives fulfill different business needs.

Why APIs? It’s a fair question. After all, with the amount of time and money many enterprises invest in their IT infrastructure, the notion of layering on more technology might seem daunting, or at least redundant.

But consider what is happening among your customers, employees, and partners. People who interact with your business have a whole new set of expectations. They expect to have information at their fingertips. They expect a modern experience with your enterprise. They expect you to meet them where they are doing business, or shopping, or buying. This has created a tidal wave of apps and, with it, streams of data. All of this presents businesses with a new set of challenges, but also opportunities.

APIs: the answer

For businesses, mobile devices offer an extraordinary channel through which to reach customers right in the palms of their hands, while at the same time providing insights into how they interact with the business. Internal expectations are evolving too, with the consumerization of IT, the BYOD revolution, and the possibility of digitizing internal processes all creating new expectations among employees.

Many organizations recognize these trends, but do they all have a strategy to capitalize on the big shift? It goes without saying that smart businesses align their strategies with customers’ and employees’ habits and needs, but what is the right way to meet these new expectations?

APIs are the answer.

APIs open the door to agile innovation, improve the ability to adapt quickly to market changes and new competitors, and create the opportunity to gather a wealth of data about app developers and users.

The end of the one-off approach to apps

You realize that your business needs to meet the expectations of customers in a mobile, social, cloud-enabled world. So you decide it’s time to develop an app. It’s common for the initial order of an iPad app to come from an enterprise’s executive office or marketing team.

An enterprise might start by developing an app in conjunction with one of its products, a partner, a social network like Facebook, or a cloud service like PayPal. The app is built, and all is well—for the time being.

Then the business realizes that there’s also a user base on Android, so the app is rebuilt for that platform. This development method continues for more social networks, platforms, partners, and cloud services, and results in a pile of incompatible apps.

Platform possibilities

Similarly, when an app is built as a one-off project, developing the next mobile app from scratch forces the recapture of the user base and user data that had been gathered by the first. The solution: develop the first app with the expectation of more. Each successive app will support or complement its predecessors and benefit from access to common data already compiled. This enables the common user base to continually grow, adding up to a compelling, unified user experience.

This kind of platform scenario—and the ability to enable and simplify app development for a variety of devices and platforms—is made possible by APIs.

An API works behind the scenes, to expose or project data and functionality for use by apps and the developers that create them. APIs make enterprise assets reachable by apps; the enterprise chooses those assets in order to enable customers, partners, or employees to interact in ways that reinforce the business model. And they also enable the gathering of powerful intelligence about users of apps and APIs. 

Coming up, we’ll explore more specific reasons why APIs are key to accelerating a digital business.

Image: www.youngdigitallab.net

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