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The True Power of an API

Posted in Knerds on December 2, 2011 by



It’s a question that comes up in almost any conversation: “What do you do?”

When I respond with my title, API Product Manager at Knewton, I generally get two additional questions in quick succession. The first, “What is an API?” is a lot easier to answer than the second, “Why is an API important?’”– but let me see if I can shed some light on both.

What is an API?

API stands for “application programming interface,” but that makes it sound more complicated than it really is.  More simply, an API is a set of rules of how one computer system can talk to another.  Say that I’d like to utilize Netflix instant streaming through my Blu-ray player. My player knows how to load my Netflix queue and stream a movie, but the software team at Netflix doesn’t have to write a complicated application for every Blu-ray player, web-enabled TV, mobile phone, or tablet. Instead, they have a small dictionary of how to talk to the Netflix internal system. The Blu-ray player, or any other device with a Netflix ‘app’ can use that dictionary and give me a similar experience as I would get through Netflix.com on my laptop. That dictionary is their API.

After that answer, I generally get some head-nodding, but then a follow-up:

Why is an API important?

As you can see from the Netflix example above, an API makes it easy for a company to offer their service on a new device with very little time and effort. But APIs can stretch beyond this.  For example: a real-estate company wants to show exactly where their listings are located on a map. They could build their own mapping application, but more likely than not, they’d prefer to show the listings on an easy to use map that is already familiar to users. They can easily and quickly do this by adding a map to their website through the Google Map API.

These two examples are concrete and can decidedly show the power of an API. However, watching TV this weekend, I saw a commercial that communicated far better than I the true power of an API.

The narrator states: “The world is starting to imagine things we hadn’t even thought of. Unexpected things, helpful things, beautiful things, inspired things.” The Kinect started out as a gaming device, but after launch made a strategic decision: give people a dictionary (an API) of how to interact with the camera and voice sensors.

Look at the results.  Microsoft is now running commercials showing the amazing products and services their users built without costing Microsoft a penny. The innovative technology of millions of users can spread the horizons of a product exponentially faster than relying solely on a research and development department.

Herein lies the true power of an API. A company can build a basic concept and ask the world, “What will you do next?” This is precisely how Facebook became a gaming destination; how Twitter has spread to every corner of the world.

But to have an API, to be “open” as they say, is often not the most apparent decision for a company. They might worry that someone or some company will take this open data and build a competing product — one that may be better than their own. They might worry that they will lose control of their competitive advantage. Even Kinect had to overcome these fears.

But despite initial hesitation, Kinect realized the power of an API and gave access to interested developers. The lesson here is that the change can be made, a company can spin on its heel and open. And the results of this sharing can be unexpected, inspired, and maybe even genius. In the end, the companies that embrace the power of APIs, rather than fear the consequences of openness, will see adoption and growth.

Here at Knewton, we are working hard on getting our API open to the world and hope to have it available next year. If you’d like more information about it, please visit our sign-up page.