Instead of starting from bare bones and building everything involved in an app, including news feeds, notification systems and more, application programming interfaces (APIs) allow companies to focus on what makes their product unique. APIs offer a scalable and reliable way to simplify the development process, avoiding rework by using existing tools built by others. They can give developers a massive advantage by shortening the development cycle and helping them be first to market. Increasingly startups are making APIs their business, allowing developers to use their tools or pull from their base of APIs to add functionality to their apps.
Twitter clients don’t log in to Twitter.com, retrieve tweets and then display them. They log in through an API, which allows them to handle more data in a secure way. Building a service that scrapes Twitter.com is inefficient and insecure, and it means that every time Twitter changes their site, developers have to change their tool. Twitter created an API almost at the launch of the product, and developers were free to play around and create things which Twitter didn’t have the resources or time to build themselves. APIs are shortcuts, as Context.IO founder Bruno Morency explained in an interview.
“Humans interact with a product’s data through a graphical user interface,” he said. “An API is an alternate way to interact with that same data, but it’s not meant to be used by humans, it’s meant to be used by computer code.” Morency’s company Context.IO provides what it calls “the missing API” for developers to build email apps by calling up the server directly to retrieve a user’s email data. One usage of Context.IO is EmailToBox, a tool which syncs a user’s new email attachments to their Box account.
Companies are making one-stop API shopping their primary business focus. Urban Airship offers a range of mobile APIs, providing in-app purchases, push notifications, analytics and other solutions that let app developers focus on what makes their app unique. Verizon, Dictionary.com, Tapulous, and Warner Bros. are a few of the companies utilizing Urban Airship’s technology. They now manage API calls from hundreds of millions of devices on iOS, Android and BlackBerry.
A similar company is spire.io, and founder Daniel Yoder points out that while API use is on the rise, there’s still plenty of room for it to grow. “Each generation of APIs commoditizes an entire class of application features, raising the bar for everyone building new applications.” He believes that more and more developers are utilizing APIs, but it still isn’t at the point where using one is the default choice. “We’ve at least reached the point where developers prefer frameworks like Rails or libraries like Socket.io to rolling their own. But they still aren’t typically following that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, which is to use a hosted API like ours,” Yoder said.
Disclaimer: BetaKit contributor Sarah Jane Morris is a current employee of Context.io, a company mentioned in this article.