June 17, 2021
The Evolving Roles of APIs
The application programming interface (API) has come a long way since first emerging around the turn of the millennium. Consisting of routines, protocols, and tools for specifying how software components interact, the first APIs were built without templates. But as businesses began to look at APIs more strategically, modern APIs have taken on characteristics that make them more valuable.
Today’s APIs adhere to standards like HTTP, making them more developer-friendly, easily accessible, and broadly understood. As a result, APIs have essentially turned themselves into products rather than just lines of code.
According to ProgrammableWeb, 15,000 APIs are publicly available. There are also many thousands of private APIs that companies use to expand their internal capabilities. Numerous types exist—including Java, Web APIs, SOAP, RPC, and REST—that function within operating systems, applications, and websites.
The Purpose of APIs
By defining functionalities that are independent of applications, APIs allow applications and function definitions to vary without compromising each other’s security. By providing the building blocks for an application function, APIs also make it easier to develop a program and thus improve developer efficiency.
For example, with a small amount of coding, developers can make repetitive, complex processes highly reusable. In turn, the speed at which APIs enable developers to build apps accelerates the overall pace of application development.
Developers are more productive because they don’t have to write integration code from scratch for every program. They just program the application codebase while relying on the API for add-on functions they want to bring into the application.
APIs also provide a layer of security. When an application on one device connects to an application on another device—such as your laptop accessing a web server—the data on each device is never fully exposed to the other device. Each application communicates via APIs with small packets of data, sharing only the data that is necessary for the specified transaction.
Examples of APIs in the Real World
A common example of APIs at work in the real world is the process of booking a vacation. You log in to a travel site, and APIs make it possible to search and quickly bring up data on flights, hotels, car rentals, excursions, and other travel services. Once you are ready to book and pay for your trip, another API will connect you to the payment system and link with your credit card. Yet another API will give you access to travel insurance.
Or consider an in-person financial transaction system that allows banks to provide access to various social services and products to people who do not have smart devices and bank accounts. Such systems rely on APIs to integrate biometric identity technology to government voucher programs, banking transaction systems, and back-end databases. A person without any digital access can walk into a bank and get a voucher to pay for food, utilities, and other vital life services. APIs connect all the necessary systems to make the process work seamlessly and quickly.
There are also APIs that people interact with almost every day. ProgrammableWeb lists Google Maps, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Amazon Product Advertising as some of the most popular APIs. Each of these enables developers to embed or integrate services into web pages or applications.
The Evolution of APIs
Since APIs were first introduced, adoption has rapidly increased as developers discovered how well APIs solve integration issues among internal systems as well as with external third-party systems. Over the past decade, APIs have been developed more and more for specific audiences, such as mobile developers, web developers, and legacy on-premises applications.
API documentation has also improved, and they are now versioned more effectively so developers are aware of maintenance and lifecycle schedules, and they can adjust their application development efforts accordingly. Other key attributes of modern APIs include stronger security and governance. And IT teams now closely monitor and manage APIs to ensure performance and the ability to scale when spikes in usage occur.
As business leaders look for ways that technology can drive their companies, the capacity of APIs to enable digital transformation is also bringing them to the forefront of CIO strategy planning and operation models. APIs provide a way to create new channels for companies to do business with customers, vendors, and partners. They also contribute to agility as businesses attempt to capitalize on the latest technologies such as automation, mobility, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence.
A Business Leader’s Guide to APIs
What’s Next for APIs?
A further evolutionary movement underway in the developer community is the industrialization of APIs. This effort is aimed at maximizing API accessibility by minimizing the knowledge developers need to have of API idiosyncrasies.
This requires providing standard interfaces so APIs can be accessed and used in any appropriate programming context with minimum knowledge. If the standard is defined, implemented, and widely adopted, it can produce APIs that are accessible to any programming tool—without requiring programmers to have prior knowledge of the peculiarities of specific APIs.
OpenAPI is one such instance. It set the standard for machine-readable files that interface with RESTful services. The files produce documentation automatically that syncs with libraries and source code depositories.
With how far APIs have come in the past 20 years, there are many reasons for businesses to expand their use. The journey to turn APIs into strategic assets takes time, but it is well worth the effort—paying off in the form of new revenue-generation opportunities and business models that drive business efficiencies. When developers, CIOs, and business leaders establish a common mission and lay the framework for taking this journey, they gain the power to unleash the full potential of APIs.
As your company begins the journey to evolve your APIs, we recommend relying on an API product development partner. Development and maintenance require a specialized discipline, and it never hurts to rely on experts for guidance!