It wasn’t too long ago that if someone brought up the term “API” (Application Programming Interface) in a meeting, it was a surefire sign that they were a geek. APIs were complex proprietary things that required specialized knowledge of applications and advanced programming skills in Java & C++. Mention of “APIs” would elicit approving nods and smarmy smiles from those elite holders of knowledge in the room who could claim dominance over them, but everyone else could only conceptualize what that meant, and turn hopefully to the geeks for reassurance.
These days, everything has changed. APIs have gone mainstream. They are no longer restricted to those elite few who speak in brackets and parenthesis. It started with Web services, which lowered the bar by opening up the number of programming languages that could be used to interface, but still required mastery of SOAP headers and parsing skills. But what really changed things for good was REST – which is really much more like simple commands issued over HTTP. Suddenly, anybody could call an API, and those complex barriers between applications went away. Non-programmers could connect Facebook and Google Analytics into Excel spreadsheets and actually accomplish something. As enterprise applications have added these types of interfaces (and organizations have adopted replacement applications built from the ground up on this approach), this phenomenon has spread. Now connecting data from Salesforce.com with data from Demandware to understand buying patterns, or even building a complete retail storefront in Facebook – projects that previously would have taken months or years – can be done relatively quickly and easily.
This really isn’t new news, I realize, but it struck me as I was out for a beer with my friend who works for Demandware. He referred to what they sell as a set of APIs (and he’s a Marketing guy!). Initially I thought this strange that he would refer to it this way, because I would have called them an application. But then I realized, the APIs are the application. This is the way of the new world – people don’t hold to the same application boundaries they once did – they may mix and match information from across many applications and use it in any variety of new ways. The things that facilitate this the best are the things that are beginning to win in the marketplace. This is why Google is so formidable… they have access to an enormous trove of information (all the public information in the world, in fact) – and they have the ability to provide access to it through any number of APIs, and recast it in new ways through analytics, recombination, or summarization to provide value on top of it (an emerging practice Stephen O’Grady describes well here).
This capability is critical to my “murmuration of systems” concept. When organizations begin to see their systems as simply a set of APIs, they can do the sort of recombination of this system DNA that allows them to evolve more quickly. Organizations are no longer bound to how a system is designed – they can simply pull what they want and use it how they want. Pretty cool if you ask me.