The definition of an API Platform includes the requirement that the data published via an API should be core to the organization exposing it. That means that it is data critical to the success of the organization. Making that available in any way often takes courage, as it is a relatively new approach to most businesses that are more akin to keeping secrets than to promote openness. Once the decision is made to make this core data available, however, one of the next questions is how to distributed it.
The Evolution of Data and Content Distribution
How data is distributed has a huge impact on not just the producer and consumer of the data, but for our society at large. Consider how content has been distributed throughout history. For thousands of years, the fastest way of share it over distances was via ship or horseback. It was a small bit of data (a handwritten letter) and it took a long time (weeks, months, or even years) to disseminate.
Technology has changed and made content distribution more efficient. We invented steam ships, telegraphs, telephones and many other ways of more efficiently distributing content. The amounts of data has risen and the time to deliver it has shrunk significantly. Suddenly, we can communicate across oceans and continents in seconds or minutes instead of days or weeks. This has changed society, and the course of human history.
Our current content distribution technology that includes the Internet, satellites, etc., has once again changed the way we live. Yahoo! estimates that during 2014 we will take almost 900 billion photos, and a large share of those will be distributed almost instantaneously to friends, family and colleagues via the Internet. We are also starting to hit physical limitations, bumping up against the speed of light for automated stock trading and other applications. This barrier is partly why some traders pay fortunes to have their servers as close to a stock exchange as possible.
It is clear that the changes in data distribution technologies have changed society and have profoundly affected our lives and the lives of many generations to come. The societal impact is also disrupting business after business and industry after industry. A recent example of this is the music industry. Traditionally, music has been distributed person-to-person, for example, with traveling musicians bringing new music into cities and towns. Technology has evolved, and we have learned to record music and distribute it via physical artifacts (e.g., phonograph cylinders, vinyl records, MiniDisks and CDs). One might argue that this change in distribution created the music industry.
A recent change in data distribution technology is digital technology, and that has completely turned the music industry on its head. Napster made every song free and almost instantaneously available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. The music industry is still dealing with this latest change. Just as the data distribution has shifted the music industry, it is also impacted many other industries as well. Even if these transformations have not been as violent or sudden, they have been just as impactful and disruptive.
API as a Data Distribution Channel
An API is a way to distribute digital content. It is not the only way. You can of course also distribute digital data via files, for example. However, APIs provide a new distribution channel. For example, if I want to check the weather on an app on my smartphone, that weather report is distributed on-demand to the app and then shown to me. APIs impacted the lives of people, society and businesses just as previous changes in distribution technologies have done. Though you can execute your business without one, using an API greatly magnifies the potential revenue that your data can earn for you.
Thinking about an API as a distribution channel has several advantages. A very helpful one that I have found is as a metaphor that technical and non-technical people can easily understand. This comparison is helpful as you seek to persuade people to join your mission to transform your company into an API Platform. Another is that it puts APIs into perspective. If you work with APIs all day long, it is easy to become blinded by the possibilities and see APIs as the solution to all problems. On the other hand, if you do not even know what an API is, you will not see it as a solution to anything. The truth is of course somewhere in the middle. For some problems, APIs are the best way to distribute core data; for others it is not. If you want to integrate systems or create digital user experiences, APIs are a great solution. If you need to reach all kinds of people all over the world, then maybe distributing your data via a printed book (or maybe even a bookbook) is better.
Changes in the technologies used to distribute data have impacted human history on every level. One of the most recent improvements in data distribution technologies are APIs. Consider APIs as another type of distribution channel helps put things into perspective, and it makes it much easier to explain to anyone new to APIs. Use this metaphor to advance the creation of your API Platform.
For more introductory advice on what an API is and when you should use one, be sure to attend the workshop I am doing with Kin Lane at the upcoming Platform Summit. Unable to make it to Stockholm this month? Leave a comment below, and I’ll give you some free consulting, at least a few sentences ;-)
[Editor’s note: The first few people that register for Andreas’ and Kin’s workshop will receive a free ticket! So, sign up _quick before they’re gone.]_