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business models, strategies and technologies

The art of APIs

The world’s going digital – easy headline, but someone has to make it actually happen

A lot of the innovation development and thought leadership work I’ve been doing with clients in recent years has been built around the basic premise (assumption?) of digital interconnectivity and the easy, low-cost scalability and exponential growth this supposedly makes possible. It’s a great/inspirational story, and many a bestselling business book has been birthed on these grandiloquent themes.

Reality check

But then I get back to the office, and get a cold-shower reminder about practical realities – that probably 90% of day-to-day corporate communication seems largely stuck in the Microsoft trifecta dungeon of Word, Excel and creaking old Explorer, in a universe of bulging email chains and attachments ad libitum.

Yes, they may have fancy tools in the R&D department, good CRM backbones and barcode-enabled logistics chains, but collaborative working and dreams of seamless digital connectivity and interactive data flows certainly aren’t an obvious feature of less exotic business life. Realities aren’t quite as squeaky shiny as Harvard Business Review Press would have us think.

Bold API ambitions

I started thinking about this after a chance encounter with a company that put this connectivity dead centre in its market communication. Swedish IT company Fourmation makes a bold start to the company’s website, with inspirational proclamations about living in a connected world, and their products/services helping to enable this wonderful thing.

Yeps, they’re talking about the once-lowly Application Programming Interface (API). Fourmation points out that APIs are drivers for new innovation, enabling the connected world and bringing data to life.

We make information come to life 

Hooks hidden in plain sight

This serves as a good reminder about the real practical value of this hidden mechanism. This is what makes it increasingly possible for companies to capture data from multiple touch points, making sure customer data goes to the tools where it can be used most effectively and to the greatest benefit for your product/service, your brand, and your company.
In layman’s language, APIs are the hooks that join up all the bits, and make sure all the myriad products interact, to mutual benefit. APIs have helped us all transition from individual, 1990s-style stand-alone pieces of software, and glide over into new user experiences that most of us now pretty much take for granted. They’re the reason the new Google Assistant can (apparently) use your voice to control as many as 5,000 different devices, and they’re the unsung under-the-hood heroes of many a service success. In fact, they’re the digital lingua franca that makes the data flow as seamlessly as the pundits so glibly promise.

Perspective, perspective

The thing is that these APIs are rarely packaged as products in themselves. They’re not usually in the spotlight or even called by their true names, and we mere mortals never see them, or really appreciate the full impact of their “enabler” capabilities. For many companies, they’re simply a necessary cost of doing business and linking into the whole digital ecosystem.

Once upon a time, product-centric software companies did tell us that there are APIs available that would enable us to do more with their digital product. But it was almost always peripheral, a gateway to nerdland, almost a throw-away item of extra information. Their presentations of APIs were always based in their one particular tiny piece of the software jigsaw, telling us that we were welcome to battle with the bigger picture, should we be so bold, needy or inclined. APIs were peripheral to the main gig.

But now it seems that the tail might be ready to wag the dog. 

Visible API artistry wanted

So I reckon there’s a lot of potential for API wizards and their unsung capabilities to move out of geekery into highlighting value, enabling, connectivity and empowerment. Fourmation in Sweden made a good start, but unfortunately their profile quickly degenerates into mainstream geekdom.

There’s a need for API artists and equilibrists to focus on the real value and significance of what they can do, instead of the usual/natural preoccupation with who or what they are, or how they do it. One company that seems to have really “got” this, and markets it well, is Segment. They talk about being the infrastructure for customer data, and cleverly claim that they “unblock” the data essential for growth, revenue and good customer relations. Their “integrator” API seems to pave the way to new agendas and capabilities about adjusting integration configurations without needing slow, costly developer involvement.

This is a rethink of the infrastructure for our digital lives and business prosperity – with exciting perspectives.