There was an interesting article on ReadWriteWeb on Monday 3/3 regarding whether developer APIs are a good idea. Given that APIs are “all the rage”, I found it to be an interesting topic. The article also has some very good observations:
Offering an API is a great way to make developer friends and developing for a large Platform has the potential to bring your work to a huge audience.
Esther Schindler, senior online editor at CXO Media, brought up a very good counterpoint:
There has to be a win in terms of time savings or product capability in order for the investment of time to be worthwhile.
Let me translate these two quotes. Making developer friends is a very nice thing, because geeks (myself included) are a loyal bunch. If the platform is good enough, there is the potential for some of the developer applications to have a large following. This can also translate into your product or platform to also have a large following. Look at the Facebook applications platform as a perfect example. The Schindler quote explains what the business side of a company wants to see. Basically, if the company is going to be creating an API or platform, there has to be some potential return on investment. Will the company be able to sell more products because of the API? Will it open the opportunity for future partnerships?
As usual, the answer is … it depends. So, if you have a web site that is part of the social media industry, then an API is probably a good idea. First, the integration with news aggregation sites like Popurls or profile aggregation sites like Profilactic is very important in social media. Also, almost every other social media site has an API. Not having an API will probably result in the perception of a substandard service. If the site is new, then there is some grace period where it can be missing, but the window is shrinking. If you are starting a blogging service, similar to WordPress, then you need to have some publishable API. The blogging platform is very difficult to compete in as there are several extremely good providers already. Social networks are also forcing the API issue with the Facebook platform and the OpenSocial APIS.
An area that is not as obvious are other utility sites like mapping and driving directions. Who thought that an API was going to be useful until Google opened up their Maps product? Really interesting mashups appeared within days, and now people can not imagine having a mapping site that does not have all of those features.
So, are APIs a good idea? If you have a web site, ask yourself a few questions. First, can you foresee your website and data being used in conjunction with another site’s data? Would you like developers writing small applications that work on your site? Do you have the time to support a developer community? Developers are loyal, but they are also very demanding and will tell you exactly what you did wrong.
Do you really want these problems? If so, great, go create an API or a developer platform.