An application programming interface (API) is a protocol intended to be used as an interface by software components to communicate with each other. It’s intended for developers to do cool stuff with other people’s stuff. A good API? It grows an ecosystem around a platform that could lead to scalability beyond the founder’s wildest dreams. A bad API or no API? That could lead to the destruction of a company. And, of course, there are implications for your business; you may be able to harness the power of an API to customize some of the tools you use to better suit your needs.
With my team at MarketMeSuite on the verge of releasing our own API, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how APIs have helped shape some of the services you may use today.
Let’s start with a juggernaut: Twitter. Twitter is a company that one can argue exists because of a strong API and development ecosystem. In Twitter’s earliest days, the service was primarily built around the idea of sending and receiving messages via SMS with a crude Web interface. Retweeting? It’s so common now, but retweeting was actually innovated by the users who started typing “RT” in front of things. Search.Twitter.com? That started off as a stand-alone site built by a 3rd party developer. Because Twitter came with a wide open Application Programming Interface (API) that let people write apps for computers and smartphones that could access the Twitter stream, it was possible for Twitter to scale up quickly.
Twitter’s API Growing Pains
Whenever there is an API, there will be an ecosystem that pops up around it. This is often delicate, as many companies are out there building competitive stuff with the access to the same technology. For an ecosystem to remain viable, there has to be some element of a “level playing field.” So, when the popular multi-platform client, Tweetie, was acquired by Twitter and became the “official” first-party client, it caused an uproar as Tweetie competitors lost their entire business model overnight. And herein lies the problem. Unlike Twitter itself, many third-party developers actually did have a clear profit model — they were selling software to users. Twitter, wanting to get into the revenue business, discovered that some of the 3rd party developers who helped them grow were now surplus to requirement. It was a tense time in the Twitter Dev Ecosystem.
Finding A Happy Medium
Twitter is now becoming clearer on how they want their API to be used and, make no mistake, they do still want it to be used. Twitter is keenly aware of the multiplier effect that other companies building on its technology can have on Twitter’s growth. For Twitter, it’s a question of the type of apps they want developers to build. For platforms that serve the enterprise, like Radian 6, or my own company, MarketMeSuite, which is focused on helping SMBs get results from social media, this paints a good picture for the future; one filled with innovation and opportunities to scale with the Twitter API. For the Tweetie and Tweetdeck competitors, however, it’s the end of the road.
Box and Buffer: Becoming Omnipresent Through Integrations
While Twitter’s API often powers entire applications, there’s another interesting way an API can be used that’s less all encompassing. Box and Buffer are two companies doing a great job of exposing their APIs to grow through integrations and to become a part of a larger web experience.
Box.com is not a social media product, but the way it’s approaching its growth through API earns them a place in this post. The concept around Box is brilliantly straightforward: simple, secure sharing from anywhere. And how does a concept like this scale? In Box’s own words: integrate Box with the services your team already uses, minimizing the learning curve and increasing security, efficiency and reliability. The productive result: You spend less time on administration and more time focusing on what really matters – moving business forward. I’m going to be watching this company closely in 2013, because 3rd party integrations are publicly part of their roadmap.
The team at Buffer has done a fantastic job of being everywhere its potential users are, and what’s interesting about Buffer is this has been done by integrating internally, and having developers plugging into their public-facing API.
Let’s look at what I think was one of the cleverest moves I’ve seen in a long time; the Buffer acquisition of Digg Digg. Buffer had been growing as a plugin for Firefox and Chrome, helping people share content they find on the web as they see it, but then someone over in Buffer-land had an epiphany: Why don’t we allow people to share the content from the articles themselves. (I’m sure @LeoWid would be willing to shed some light on how it actually happened)!
And that’s what they did. They bought a WordPress plugin that already shared to Twitter, Facebook and a variety of other sites, and added themselves right there.
This move, along with integrations into hosts of other content creation and sharing tools, has helped them grow to over 500,000 users in a relatively short period of time.
Although this article is mostly about the use of APIs, I think it’s important to spend a few minutes on a company that has chosen not to release an API (yet). Pinterest is one of the fastest growing networks; people are simply loving it. They have a lot of organic growth, but the one thing they don’t have? An open API. Here’s the truly interesting thing: they still have people developing for them. Even in the absence of a public facing API there are still companies popping up to support Pinterest and make a viable business out of it (like PinReach or Reachli). I have heard a lot of rumors about why Pinterest hasn’t opened their API yet, including they didn’t want to have “The Twitter problem”. Whether this is true or not, I don’t now, but I hope they will open their API, because I think exposing the right elements could only help them grow.
Using Open APIs For Your Business
An Open API has one test: Can a developer build a software integration without explicitly asking the software vendor? If you already have a great product, an API can help you bring it to your customers wherever they are, and scale a company quickly and effectively, and it doesn’t always have to mean you go out and sell the software. Creating an integration can be purely internal; a way to help you use the tools you love more effectively.
I’d like to end this post with some questions and I hope you’ll comment below. Also be sure to connect with me @TammykFennell!
Have you tried any integrations with Open APIs in your business?
Do you like a more integrated web where your favorite services are are often found bundled together, built into one another?
What are your thoughts on Pinterest not releasing an API at this stage of the game?