The Application is Dead…. Long Live the API

Posted by Kevin Anderson on November 7, 2014

As the trend for cloud computing and mobility marches ever onward, we’ll no doubt begin to see that this statement has actually been true for some time, and that we’ll see even less time being spent on the standard application offering as a result of that. Instead, the API will be King.

I don’t mean that there won’t be any applications – that’s nuts – but that those systems that truly exist as platforms can extend their usability by considered development and exposure of the API.

Simply put, an API (Application Programming Interface) refers to the features a software component provides that allow other software components to interact with it, using a common set of rules. One example perhaps many will understand is ODBC – Open Database Connectivity – a middleware API that connects with various database management systems.

It could even be that the vendor only has to develop a nominal application to support their system/tool/existence, opting instead to provide a robust API, leaving other folks to build the (much funkier) applications and integrations. Look at the Dropbox application. Not the “most awesomest” of applications, right? Although it does what it says on the tin, it’s not that dynamic. It’s only a file sync tool, after all. But, expose the API, and up rocks CloudOn, Notability, IFTTT, and a whole host of plug-in applications that instantly enhance the experience. The freedom that exposing the API has allowed has created applications that are better at using Dropbox for things like collaboration, for example, than Dropbox is.

If you publish a blog (via WordPress, for example), you probably already have it simultaneously publish that blog to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. WordPress is accessing the APIs of those other social media systems.

Your Firefox plug-ins that stop all those annoying adverts? Just one of a range of APIs made available for developers to hook into.

That smartphone of yours? The only reason it’s smart is the APIs it connects to in order to serve up all those lovely apps you use to connect to Twitter, Facebook, Evernote…

The Workforce Management industry is constantly talking about “mobile first”, but how is that going to be achieved? By vendors further developing, exposing, and documenting that beautiful API is how.

It’s also better at security. I don’t necessarily mean encryption, more the not leaving your wallet on the bar kind of security. Take the example where you want to populate your Service Desk system from your HR system. It’s going to be easier, and more secure to write a piece of middleware that makes the call(s) from one system to another. No connection string to expose, no Stored Procedure (visible to all and sundry) to write that contains a username and password required for accessing each system from the other (i.e. database to database). It’s all bundled up into a smart little piece of API-tickling code.

The real benefit, of course is flexibility. Currently, if you want a mobile app for system X, you have to buy it from the same vendor. If they don’t have the functionality you need, you have to wait until they decide you can have it. And of course we’re all different, wanting different things from the same systems, and I get that. But if they exposed a decent API, you could source that mobile app from anyone. Or have it written for you. If an API’s available, it will allow for more applications that do different things (a la my earlier Dropbox example).

I recently watched a TV series called Silicon Valley, detailing the exploits of a fledgling start-up called Pied Piper. It was utterly puerile (aka great fun!), but watching the final episodes provided a very salient message – that many vendors are still (incorrectly) trying to be the complete solution. And that’s not the solution that anyone really wants. The messiah-chasing crowd in The Life of Brian provided one of my favourite quotes: “Yes, we are all individuals!” and that’s so very true (all irony aside). What the exploits of Pied Piper have taught me is that platform vendors should concentrate on what they do best, and stop trying to be all things to all men, or they run the risk of being nothing to no one. My message is this: Open up the API. Integrate. Join all the good stuff together to allow the solution to be built by whoever, to be whatever they need it to be.

The Platform and API combo is a model that Salesforce adopted early on, and they’ve been doing it pretty much all century long (with social media following suit almost immediately) and doing it extremely well, with all the bolt-on applications that add real value to the Salesforce platform. It breeds longevity into systems/platforms that could so easily stagnate in the face of competition. And frankly, it’s high time the Workforce Management industry got on board. Come on, if Dropbox can do it, how hard can it be?