Are APIs a good thing?

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.

3 thoughts on “Are APIs a good thing?

  1. As usual, a great article. In almost every case, an API is going to bring business back to the site that releases it. There will always be apps that will leave the site out of the mix, but the vast majority of APIs work for the site, not around it.

    There are a lot of sites that have ballooned largely in thanks to releasing a public API.

    As a non-coder (unless you consider html and css code), I’m clueless as to how to use an API to create an app, but I know how much I benefit from APIs. I could name 20 sites that I use third-party apps for, all based on that site’s API. As is obvious, whether or not the API benefits the company, it will always benefit the users.


  2. As usual, thanks for the praise. One day I am hoping to write something about the Facebook and OpenSocial platforms. The main example is Facebook, as they are now getting funding for various companies writing apps. Another interesting example that I didn’t think of before is Eclipse IDE. It would not be nearly as popular without the plugin model that it has.

    As I said before, you should probably just start responding on your blog. You have some good ideas, and it would be cool to see if you could expand on them. Just a thought, not telling you what to do 🙂


  3. Food for thought, RD. My blog started out as a personal site for friends, and blossomed over the years (it used to be under a different name, but I changed it to keep certain folks away). I have been somewhat neglectful lately, but hope to change that soon. And adding tech-type articles into the mix might be cool. Most of my readers are not really tech-savvy, but I’ve never written to cater to a specific audience, so I’ve got freedom to do what I want.

    I think I’m babbling on now.



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