Open APIs: Much Mentioned, Little Understood and Potentially Disruptive

Loraine Lawson

My obsession with open APIs began shortly after I wrote about Google Wave. Ken-Hardin, who oversees editorial operations at IT Business Edge, e-mailed me that he was unimpressed, noting that APIs are hardly an enterprise-shaking development.


Well, he had a point. APIs are hardly new. And yet, I'm constantly seeing "open API" thrown about in press releases, announcements and blogs.


Suddenly, I had a lot of questions - and a new obsession: Why am I seeing all this Open API hoopla? What, exactly, is new and different about an Open API? And does anybody outside the development team really need to know about this stuff?


While I don't ever rely on Wikipedia as a definitive source, it often provides succinct, helpful explanations, so I often use it as a starting point. In this instance, it was marginally helpful in technically defining both:

"Application programming interface (API) is an interface that defines the ways by which an application program may request services from libraries and/or operating systems. An API determines the vocabulary and calling conventions the programmer should employ to use the services."

The definition goes on to note an API may be language-specific or language-independent. Then, we get:

"Open API (often referred to as OpenAPI) is a word used to describe sets of technologies that enable websites to interact with each other by using SOAP, Javascript and other web technologies. While its possibilities aren't limited to web-based applications, it's becoming an increasing trend in so-called Web 2.0 applications."

The introduction also adds this: "Open API also applies to collaborative services environments where managed service providers can also outsource specific services to other providers via systems integration."


OK, that's helpful. Open APIs are all Webby and 2.0. But I still wanted something more explicit. So I tried to arrange two different interviews on the topic, only to have interest fizzle out when I mentioned Open API. I also received no response to my begging Twitters about open APIs or my Facebook query.


When a topic falls so flat, it's usually because of one of two reasons:


  1. I'm asking about something so painfully obvious to everyone else, I looked like a fool just asking the question and they don't deem it worthy of a response. So, I asked around a bit and found I wasn't the only one a bit confused by the Open API hype, which leads me to suspect...
  2. The people I'm asking don't actually know the answer well enough to articulate it themselves.


As it turned out, the answer was actually behind the seldom-used door number three: I was asking the wrong question.


The real question about open APIs isn't whether they are different in fact from APIs, but whether they are different in value-a lesson I began to glean after seeing this recent GigaOM report, "How Popular is your API."


The piece is actually about a new offering by Sonoa Systems called Apigee, which is essentially a service that sits between "the two linked web apps and manages the connection while aggregating data about the use of that API." Why would you want to use Apigee? Because, at some critical mass, it will provide you useful information about open APIs, such as alerting you to service problems. It will also monitor whether API providers are honoring their service agreements.


The picture about open APIs and businesses began to get a bit clearer. If you could solve the availability and service agreement problems of using data on the Web, then the business possibilities and value of online content and applications becomes much more enticing.


But where it gets really interesting is what happens when you open up your own software systems with open APIs. In 2008, Dion Hinchcliffe described this as part of WOA-web-oriented architecture-and points out it's a paradigm that's proven very successful for, eBay and Facebook-assuming, of course, Facebook ever finds a business model.


Hinchcliffe specializes in all things Web 2.0, and he's been talking about this for years. But if you haven't followed him-perhaps because you thought it didn't apply to you or because you were so busy writing about SOA (guilty)-he explained the business and integration values of Open APIs in a ZDNet column last fall:

"... open APIs have become an increasingly vital story for Web startups and traditional firms alike to cost effectively partnership, expand the reach of their products (and especially their data), and drive their network effect deeply across the Web. It's now almost uncommon to see a new Web product that doesn't sport a shiny new API so that other online products can integrate the pieces they like into new experiences and offerings. In short, APIs allow a Web application or online business to have thousands of points of presence in other products, instead of just one."

Businesses have been shy about open APIs. Hinchcliffe blames this on a lack of understanding about a non-visual Web presence:

"Business leaders are much more likely to understand investment in a traditional Web site, which they are familiar with and understand somewhat, than in an online software development kit, which is more developer-centric and which they are much less likely to fully appreciate, even though APIs can often have more strategic value than a Web site."

In other words, to connect with Amazon, eBay, Google or Facebook or a host of others, you don't have to contact their IT department and arrange a project meeting. You can just use their Open APIs. And not just you-but others like you.


It's like one big lovefest-a Web 2.0 Woodstock, with everybody getting together. Except-and this is key -- it can pay off big time. For instance, did you know 80 percent of Twitter's traffic is through the API and not through the core site? Or, if you prefer examples where someone actually made money-look at what APIs did for Amazon-a model other retailers and even hosting companies are now trying to emulate.


Businesses have been shy about open APIs. Hinchcliffe blames this on a lack of understanding about a non-visual Web presence:

"Business leaders are much more likely to understand investment in a traditional Web site, which they are familiar with and understand somewhat, than in an online software development kit, which is more developer-centric and which they are much less likely to fully appreciate, even though APIs can often have more strategic value than a Web site."

Predictably enough, as the number of APIs have grown, so has business interest. In the 2008 ZDNet column, Hinchcliffe had already observed "a significant number of Fortune 1000 companies" were planning to launch (assumably open) APIs:

"Large, non-Web organizations are finally beginning to see the potential of moving behind expensive and time-consuming custom integration and moving towards an SDK that allows them to scale their partnerships quickly and cheaply while increasing the number of business opportunities they can access."

All of which helps explain why 2009 has brought so many press releases and announcements touting a solution's "Open API."


So where does that leave us with the value of open APIs over traditional APIs? As far as I can tell-and feel free to disagree or add your own items - Open APIs add value by:

  • Providing a simple, standard way to integrate with external partners and would-be partners who you might not even know;
  • Simplifying integration with other online service providers or products that you might want to use'
  • Allowing you to easily access existing open data; and
  • Providing wider access to your services or products by adding your product to "thousands of points of presence in other products, instead of just one," as Hinchcliffe observed.

For a more recent take on Web 2.0 and API developments, you should check out InfoQ's July interview with Hinchcliffe, who talks about recent examples of success with open APIs, how companies can get started with Open APIs, the hazards of too much control and, of course, the issue of balancing open data with enough control to retain business value.


If used smartly, open APIs could be a boon to IT departments eager to prove their value as a strategic business enabler. Indeed, if eBay, Amazon and Facebook are any indication, open APIs could be a huge business disrupter - in a good way, if you're open to what they offer, and also in a bad way, if you count yourself among the Web 2.0-averse IT departments.

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Aug 27, 2009 2:52 AM Rick Nucci Rick Nucci  says:

Great post Loraine.  We spend a ton of time educating the SaaS ecosystem specifically on what we call the SaaS API Blueprint (example session here, one of the pillars of success we feel is exactly in line with this - "free, open access to your API and documentation."

What is also interesting is your comment as to why this topic would fall flat.  I would offer a door number 4, which is "it depends WHO you ask."  I think if you ask the general populace of the consumer internet world, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, you may get the reaction of "yes of course what other kind of API is there?"  Whereas the SaaS community is generally divided into one of two camps, (1) the enterprise inspired, and (2) the consumer web inspired.  While both are generally offering applications delivered as a service instead of installed software, they tend to have roots/habits/culture that will more times than not take them down one path vs. another.  API's are a great example; the SaaS ISV who subscribes to "behave like a consumer app to truly achieve the scale the SaaS model promises" will provide open access to the API with encouragement to try it out even during the trial of a product.  The enterprise-inspired SaaS ISV on the other hand will put heavy and complex restrictions on use of their API; signing license agreements, sometimes charging for access, etc.  The result?   More often than not the ISV that employs this closed model finds themselves in ongoing discussions with their prospects defending this strategy over and over again, and in many cases is even precluded from consideration.  Per your points about the value the open API provides, integration continues to be in the top 3 barriers to SaaS adoption.  This means it is top of mind with SaaS consumers, and an open API is the first step remove this barrier.


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