If your business has a digital presence, you are probably already using Application Programming Interfaces - better known as APIs.
If this is news to you, don’t be surprised. APIs are a software development tool. In terms of how they function, they sit quietly in the background. Unless you’re a software programmer, you will never ‘use’ an API directly, or even see the work it does close up.
But as far as their impact goes, APIs are the unsung heroes of the digital ecosystem. Because it is APIs that allow different pieces of software - apps, platforms, operating systems, websites, databases - to communicate with one another simply and efficiently. They are the glue that holds digital systems together.
Let’s give some examples of how your business, most likely through your website, may be making use of APIs right now as you read this. If you run an ecommerce site, you are no doubt connected to a third-party payment platform that allows you to process transactions online. That link between your site and the payment service - yes, you guessed it, that’s done by APIs.
Think about any other so-called ‘plug-ins’ you have for your site - CRM and lead generation, web tracking and analytics, marketing automation. Like a payment platform, they are all likely to be third-party platforms connected by APIs. Perhaps you have your site connected directly to social accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, so you can automatically share news and blog posts, or link your web store to social listings. That’s APIs at work again.
And if your site is built on WordPress - like 43% of all sites on the internet - most of the functionality is controlled by API-powered plug-ins. Like using a Shopify, WooCommerce, Bigcommerce, Ecwid or another ecommerce plug-in to build your store.
When you dig into how pervasive APIs are, it’s hardly surprising to see stats like more than 90% of developers now routinely use APIs, or that 83% of IT specialists now consider APIs critical to their business.
Things were not always like this. It’s no exaggeration to say that APIs have completely transformed the landscape when it comes to software development and unlocked a new phase of digital evolution. And we’re only part way through exploring the possibilities.
Back before APIs, software development was much more of a closed shop. Different developers and vendors worked on their own proprietary products. As a customer looking for software solutions for your business, you made your choices with little or no prospect of being able to hook different apps together to share data and functionality. If you wanted a broader set of software tools that all worked together, you had to pick a larger suite of programmes from a single developer, such as Microsoft Office.
There wasn’t much alternative. Different developers would use different code and different programming languages to create different applications (which is still the case today, by the way). To use a human analogy, these languages are not mutually intelligible. Without a translator sitting in the middle, they cannot work together.
This led to what we now refer to as the ‘monolithic’ era of software development - applications that existed as great big slabs of code, often created by a single development team in a single programming language, with all functionality built to run together from a single source.
Take the example of an ecommerce platform. A decade ago, launching a web store meant signing up with a single provider with a single all-singing, all-dancing platform. These platforms were monolithic in the sense that they provided all functionality required - front-end product listings and content facilities, shopping cart, checkout, inventory, CRM and marketing - all in one place. No plug-ins, no integrations with other services.
That was great as far as having access to all the features you needed to run a web store was concerned. But the limitations quickly became apparent. Such big chunks of code can be clunky and technically challenging to manage. They’re very difficult to customise or adapt to changing business or technological requirements, as reprogramming one part of the code is likely to have a knoeffect across the whole.
In short, monolithic platforms, whether ecommerce sites or anything else, lacked agility and scalability. This was an issue given the rapid pace of evolution in digital technology. As a business, you might invest heavily in a piece of software, only to find it out of date in a couple of short years.
The API revolution started earlier than you might think. The likes of Salesforce, eBay, Amazon and a handful of other digital pioneers have been using APIs since the early 2000s.
To understand the impact of APIs, we can look at three phases of development:
The earlier pioneers of APIs originally used them to fuel an alternative model to web application development - and so avoid the drawbacks of monolithic platforms described above.
APIs work by creating a communication channel between two otherwise separate and independent pieces of software. Instead of trying to programme all functions for their websites in a single piece of code, the development teams behind Amazon, eBay and the rest realised they could build different features and tools as distinct, separate pieces of code - what we would otherwise call a programme - and then get them working together using APIs.
There are numerous names given to this approach to development - headless, microservices, decoupled, decentralised. There are even more benefits than names.
Unlike monolithic platforms, API-based applications are highly agile. You can add, remove or change individual functions without affecting the performance of the whole. This takes the lid off scalability, speeds up development and encourages innovation.
One of the keys to Amazon’s phenomenal success is that it has been able to innovate with digital services at a relentless pace, setting the standards (and consumer expectations) for ecommerce at large. It would never have been able to do this with a monolithic platform. APIs have been central to Amazon’s success story.
Another benefit of the decentralised, decoupled development approach APIs enable became obvious once smartphones and mobile internet started to transform our relationship with digital. As new digital channels emerged to challenge the desktop, one of the challenges for developers was how they could run assets for a single brand consistently and efficiently across them all - mobile, desktop, browser, mobile app and so on.
Again, APIs offered a solution. What so-called headless development lets you do, for example, is create central badatabases where you keep all your digital resources like data and content, and then build and connect separate front-end interfaces for whatever channels you want to make use of - one for your website, one for your mobile app, one for your social store etc. This not only significantly reduces the burden of work compared to building separate applications from every channel, but it also results in a consistent brand experience across them all.
Today, an omnichannel approach means a lot more than just making sure your website and mobile app look and operate in a consistent way. It means providing agile pathways across multiple different touchpoints that allow customers to explore and engage with your brand in any combination of ways they choose.
This is only going to accelerate, with emerging channels like voice / smart assistants growing in popularity rapidly, and ‘smart’ IoT devices in our homes, cars and places we shop blurring the lines between online and offline. The next phase of evolution in digital is likely to see significant consolidation and integration across devices. The increasing complexity of the data-sharing networks this will create will require increasingly agile, scalable solutions. APIs will be critical.
Finally, the previous two points have focused on the ‘internal’ impact APIs have had on application development - the transformations APIs have enabled in the architecture of how platforms are put together. But figures suggest that the majority of developers using APIs are nowadays engaged in using them externally - i.e. to connect one piece of software to a completely different source.
Even more than opening the door to highly agile, scalable software designs that encourage innovation and enable omnichannel performance, this is the biggest step forward APIs have achieved. Because the truth is, with APIs, you don’t have to programme every last function you want a platform to have. You can use applications that already exist, tagging them onto your own product as a shortcut or an extension using APIs.
This has completely transformed the way the software industry works. Where once developers (or at least, the companies they worked for) were fiercely protective of their creations, and actively took steps to stop other developers from using them, now virtually all software vendors make their APIs available, encouraging integration with other systems.
From competitive individualism, a spirit of mutualism and collaboration now dominates the software industry. Why? Because vendors have realised, as digital technology continues to evolve and end user expectations grow just as rapidly, they don’t have the capacity to deliver everything people want. The monolithic model puts limits on what can be achieved.
Now the aim of the game is to have a solid stake in a highly dynamic, integrated ecosystem, making sure your product adds value by complementing the services it can integrate with.
In the modern digital world, not only is no app an island, but no business is, either. Increasingly, the quality and relevance of your digital assets depends on your engagement with an ecosystem of digital partners. Behind the scenes, holding it all together, are APIs.
Key Element’s technical team specialises in API development and integration as part of our bespoke web design services. If you’re interested in finding out how you can add more to your site, contact us today.