The Humble API

Right now APIs are forming the foundation for the most crucial decisions in business development for the foreseeable future.

Throughout the next 20 years or more, humans will experience the quickest period of growth in business, education, clean energy, and–most importantly–poverty eradication all thanks to high-quality software with APIs. Humanity is facing an app-driven future where more jobs for coders and non-coders alike will be available than people to fill them. Such a shortage of workers is already keenly felt in the software industry today.

In his post, “Don’t underestimate the power of the humble API” from July 2015, Sam Macklin of CA Technologies and the API Academy notes, “In the future, every successful company will be a software company and every successful software company will be an API provider,” a refrain heard among the top technology venture capitalists today such as Marc Andreessen. So why are pieces of code unheard of eight years ago by Fortune 500 CEOs transforming the way we do business?

An animated .gif of futuristic, simple hand and wrist subtle UI interactions.
A look at Google’s Project Soli: who will engineer the next app with the WP API and a Project Soli API? See complete video below.

APIs aren’t new, and nor is “code” or software. What’s different today is the runaway success of open source software and the convergence of technology and media into a single, mobile UI with over 50% global human penetration. Abundance author Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler say that this mobile development is most important among the “rising bottom billion” and it is these individuals who can experience the greatest amount of poverty-reduction with the introduction of new technology and education through software.

The imminent deluge of app development for the next 10-20 years will soon be provided to a scale of billions. This tipping point is attributed to software, especially those pieces of code that are open source or API fueled. This article discusses the multifold business applications that APIs possess and is required understanding for anyone who wishes to succeed in business now or in the future.

With open source APIs, we can create generic APIs (APIs used by developers to build other APIs) so that the abundance of software and application development kits is vast and wide for engineers and entrepreneurs. Throughout this article and at the end I’ll discuss the WP API project and the way it meets each of aforementioned qualities. Ryan McCue, co-lead on the WP API project, announced on September 20, 2015, the plans to merge the WP API into the core of WordPress, bringing to scale 24% of the Internet.

Today we have a flourishing app economy thanks to the rise in popularity of a number of technologies previously only reserved for the wealthy such as cloud computing, wireless networks, micro-services (something startup giant Gilt has embraced wholeheartedly), global smartphone penetration, wearables, open source software, the impending Internet of Things (shortened to ‘the IoT’) and virtual reality or “VR”, including Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift in 2014 and the 2015/2016 impending onslaught of VR apps. This economy is continually bolstered by the introduction of new APIs, leading to newer, more innovative apps every day.

What is an API?

An API, short for application program interface, is a set of routines, protocols or tools used to build new user interfaces (UIs) or connect existing ones with unified data, assets, or functionality. They’re the rules of engagement for software, allowing any business that compiles one to instantly become a “platform” company.

Most well-documented code and software today has an API in one form or another, either internal or external. There are APIs for obvious UI components you might see on WordPress websites every day like Google Maps. There are atom and RSS feeds, designed for simple blog or article syndication. There are Instagram and Twitter APIs for 3rd party apps to pull functionality and data found at the originating source to enhance a new app. There are even APIs for your house or home, particularly with the Internet of Things (IoT). “Traditional” sales software giants like Salesforce are joining in on the frenzy of IoT and API-driven development, releasing their “Dreamforce” cloud IoT service in September 2015.

APIs can be built for just a single part or portion of the target software, too. For example, Instagram opened the doors to its ads API in August in 2015, setting off billions of dollars in future revenue. The release of this API by Instagram was, “one of the most anticipated moments in the evolution of advertising.” APIs can even give birth to entire sub-industries, for example with service startups like Hire Large and Slack’s API.

APIs offer great benefits to businesses since costs for developing new components or just plain revenue and growth are drastically reduced when you can plug directly into existing software and assets or data. As Macklin remarks, “APIs make it possible for a few people with a great idea to offer a credible service worldwide with minimal effort and investment.”

Software is eating the world

APIs today control the future of business development because, in the future, every company will be a software company. We’re already much of the way there; software or API-related companies now make up the majority of companies valued at more than $1 billion, known as “unicorns” in the technology industry.

APIs create compartmentalization and modularization for nearly any type of business model in a way software can execute it. In this way, APIs can be seen by business developers as shortcuts to major growth milestones. While an API-first approach such as Twilio is not for every startup, Macklin correctly asserts that, “the principles of openness, agility and software-based innovation that APIs enable will be vital to business success in the coming years.”

Because of this, a common refrain is being heard: “Software is eating the world.” And it’s not just any software that’s eating the world, it’s API-driven and Javascript code in particular.

Javascript (JS) libraries and frameworks like React (Facebook), Node (Google), Angular (Google), and Backbone form the foundation for alternative and new UIs on mobile, wearable, and Internet of Things (IoT) all with many delightful and innate future UI interactions with our bodies, like Google’s Project Soli whose lead engineer (of many) shared that he was “most excited to released [Project Soli] to the developer community.” (Checkout the video above!) 

The next Uber will be constructed with one of these aforementioned frameworks, and their ubiquity among developers today means the costs to create the next Uber are much lower than even two or four years ago. With the help of APIs, a single app can utilize software written with multiple programming languages thanks to a unified architectural style called REST, discussed below.

The fact that code like Javascript is eating the world of business is a hugely optimistic indicator for the global economy among legendary startup investors like Marc Andreessen. APIs reduce barriers to entry for new software innovation since they so drastically diminish friction to create a vast web of connectivity or functionality instantly. APIs truly allow engineers to never reinvent the wheel. The social and cultural disruption that this kind of compounding development creates is therefore huge.

Today, we truly do live in the cult of the API, and entirely new job sets and ecosystems (including many non-technical roles!) will continue to open up, and, in my opinion, will force unemployment and poverty to plummet to previously inconceivable levels globally.

REST

An explanation of APIs and their central role to the future of entrepreneurship of any kind (not just tech companies) would not be complete if it did not include a discussion of the RESTful methodology.

REST (I didn’t think you had enough acronyms to remember yet) is a software architectural style first launched by Roy Fielding and Salesforce back in 2000. Apps that are RESTful are those whose APIs follow a universal set of architectural requirements so that multiple programming languages can easily plugin to an API in a unified approach. REST addresses:

  1. Performance
  2. Scalability
  3. Simplicity of interfaces
  4. Modifiability
  5. Visibility
  6. Portability
  7. Reliability

If you’re a developer of one computing language and a new piece of software comes along with an API, REST will be there to save the day so that you can build any UI regardless of the originating language of that software.

The beauty of today’s modern Javascript libraries and frameworks combined with the universality of REST and JSON APIs provide the basis for future exponential growth, ultimately giving birth to the next, never-far-off unicorn. Will you be the one to build it?

How APIs generate revenue

APIs can be external services requiring a “key” for use or they can be 100% free and publicly available, not requiring registration with the originating entity. They can also be internal, used for an infinite number of backend, operational possibilities for a software-driven firm.

In some cases, charging developers for access to an API can be a standalone revenue stream for software companies. In some freemium APIs, a threshold model is used where data usage above a certain point requires payment for an app’s continued use of the API, such as Google Maps. Another freemium API technique is to provide a free service that is likely to generate paying customers for a different service from the same provider such as the Facebook Like button API and Facebook’s paid ads services and API.

A more popular monetization model for APIs exists where an enterprise pays a developer (or an enterprise pays another enterprise) for sales via a 3rd party app to an API. An obvious example of this model is Expedia’s $2 billion worth of business thanks to travel bookings in 3rd party apps with their API. Expedia executives have disclosed in the past that 90% of their business is now done through APIs.

Instead of providing “simple” one-off solutions for internal projects such as backend efficiency or cost-cutting, APIs today are constantly charting new revenue territory for businesses. Today’s software is much different, much more collaborative and more intelligent than our wildest dreams from even just 5 years ago.

Foundational software & OSS

REST and JSON APIs enable software engineers to never reinvent the wheel when building new apps, a lesson first taught to me by my good friend and leading computer scientist, Reuben Doetsch. As Reuben first explained to me when we were undergraduates, REST APIs are the purest form from which a developer can build and grow a UI or app’s structure.

Open source software (OSS) projects especially benefit from the power of well-documented APIs, and these same APIs allow for OSS to be created more easily and freely. OSS also forms the basis for a lot of the most successful and widely used foundational software today.

The increased prevalence of APIs today can also be thanked in large part to the increased popularity of open source software (OSS) projects like WordPress. The groundbreaking “generic” nature of the all new WP API is only possible thanks to the previous extensive evolution of it and other OSS projects. Open source principals are even more important as new markets flourish and friction to enter the market by any developer who knows how to code is reduced and made as equitable as possible. Thanks to such incentives, foundational software structures will continue to grow on emerging platforms for the IoT, VR, wearables, and many more.

APIs are one of the major reasons open source software like WordPress succeeds in the long term. When code can be copied and iterated upon freely, conduits for the exchange of functions and assets of software can be more easily created than if it were proprietary.

Apps and APIs are now being developed for cars, kitchens, and even your bedroom and bathroom. The first apps and APIs to show up in these spaces will mark out the foundational software from which future developers will build upon. When software ventures into a completely new area of business development where a specific app ecosystem is not already established, we consider it foundational software. The upcoming Internet of Things (IoT) will be filled with all kinds of foundational software that we cannot even yet imagine, especially in the kitchen, restaurants and other environments where food data and other technology matters.

When we build foundational software that’s open source, we build frameworks and APIs from which other entrepreneurs and engineers in the future can more easily and frictionlessly enter the market. This kind of environment leads to the fast-paced iterating needed for any app to survive in the market today. While it may sound counterintuitive, the more apps that are created and iterated in a single competing space, the better off all software companies become.

The open source growth of popular API-based movements today contrasts strongly with previous SaaS trends which have tended to be much more proprietary, requiring monthly access to a platform to dispense a service (a la Salesforce’s original CRM). By making foundational software for new entrepreneurs open source and not proprietary, we greatly reduce the barriers to entry for new apps and entirely new areas of business development, meaning higher quality products and wider access to all. 

Generic APIs

One of the most exciting aspects about the future of APIs, is that in addition to being the building blocks for many future permutations of apps on emerging technology platforms, some APIs are so efficiently structured that they’re the perfect building blocks for making new APIs. APIs that are used to make other APIs are called generic APIs.

Much of the future Internet of Things (IoT) will be made up of foundational software that we can’t yet picture, and the only way it will succeed in the long term is through mutual growth via open source iteration. The fact that the WP API provides a 100% open source generic API building platform is astronomical.

In my opinion, the WP API happens to be the best generic API ever created in software thanks to the following reasons:

  1. It’s 100% open source with a vibrant maker and tinkerer community.
  2. It’s a generic API with a slew of out-of-the-box options thanks to the WordPress core and plugins.
  3. WordPress can be used for actual API management, too.

As Ryan McCue shared with Josh Pollock earlier this year,

“The infrastructure of the API itself, supports basically anything you can throw at it. If you take away the core endpoints, it is essentially a framework for building APIs, and you can build those however you like.”

If you could build anything with software, what would you build? Will your team of engineers construct the next Uber? Will you use the WP API to accomplish it all?

Merging the WP API into WordPress core in 2015

The WP API is easily the best example of an open source, generic API ready for foundational software creation. The WP API is already proving to be extremely effective in scaling quickly and efficiently for enterprise solutions not possible with WordPress just a few years ago. Agencies with standout work in this area include Human Made, where WP API co-founder Ryan McCue is a Senior WordPress Engineer.

Up until this point, WordPress was the world’s most popular content management system, or CMS, powering over 24% of all websites on the Internet. With the new WP API merging into WordPress Core at the end of 2015, WordPress will become a fully fledged application development framework, able to extend its reach to a much larger market of total apps and websites. This instant scaling of 24% of the web is only possible by merging the WP API into the core of WordPress.

I covered the implications for bringing such a vast quantity of the Internet to scale with robust generic infrastructure like the WP API in June. In that article, I discussed the implications for mobile app development, the difference between JSON and REST, enterprise web and mobile apps, and the WP API’s relationship with future IoT as a foundational applicational development framework.

Per Ryan McCue’s official proposal announcement on Make WordPress Core on September 20, 2015, incorporation of the WP API into core will happen in two stages, the first in 2015 with the release of WordPress 4.4, and the second when WordPress 4.5 is released, likely in 2016. Ryan McCue further shares,

WordPress already has external APIs: XML-RPC, designed for desktop clients; Atom and RSS feeds, designed for post syndication; and the venerable admin-ajax, designed for Ajax requests in the admin and frontend. These APIs all serve different purposes, but often have a great deal of overlap. […]

The REST API builds upon the heritage of these APIs to provide better support today for using these, as well as laying the groundwork for expanded use in the future. […]

Our aim is to eventually replace the XML-RPC API completely, to act as a secondary import/export format, and to replace most (but not all) uses of admin-ajax. The REST API offers an easier to use interface than the existing solutions.

API security

One of the most critical challenges facing those who engineer and develop APIs in the future will be security. Internal API security from outside intruders is one major challenge, in addition to some complex privacy and data sensitivity concerns.

The Kardashian and Jenner app hack from September 2015 exposed the data of millions of people, opening up the door to legal and privacy ramifications of all kinds. Security is one major tenet that the WP API team has followed steadfastly, announcing that they will dedicate special attention to the complexity of the intended endpoints and security of deep APIs in WordPress in a separate stage two, which will be solely focused on endpoint merging per Ryan McCue’s latest update.

Thanks for reading; I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of APIs and business development in the comments below or via Twitter @laralfield. 💖

At Simmer, we’re building the future of food data, generic food APIs, and the future Internet of Things for food-related businesses in mobile, local, and e-commerce. Check our careers page regularly for open positions and join our growing team of engineers, makers, and tinkerers today.

Picture at top by Annie Spratt 📷