In order to understand why APIs are so important, we’ll need to take a look at how we got here. While web APIs have a relatively brief history, it’s resulted in them being behind almost every aspect of how we do business online. When you hear the acronym “API” or its expanded version “Application Programming Interface,” it is almost always in reference to our modern approach, in that we use HTTP to provide access to machine readable data in a JSON or XML format, often simply referred to as “web APIs.” APIs have been around almost as long as computing, but modern web APIs began taking shape in the early 2000s. A popular dissertation on REST by Roy Fielding and a handful of emerging technology companies including Salesforce, eBay, and Amazon, led to the definition of web APIs we use today.
A very commercial API beginning
Web APIs got their start by putting the “commercial” in “.com”, powering the vision of emerging commerce startups looking to change the way we do business on the web. They took advantage of this new medium to make products and services available to customers via a single website, and ensure that partners and third party resellers could extend the reach of their platforms. And so began the push to automate much of the commerce that was powering the web.
The commerce age of web APIs was dominated by three companies: Salesforce, eBay, and Amazon. Twenty years later, they remain commercial powerhouses and continue to shape the world of APIs.
- Salesforce – Salesforce officially launched its API on February 7, 2000 at the IDG Demo conference. This introduced an enterprise-class, web-based, Salesforce automation: “Internet as a Service.” XML APIs were a fundamental part of how Salesforce did business from day one.
- eBay – On November 20, 2000, eBay launched the eBay Application Program Interface (API) along with the eBay Developers Program. These were originally rolled out to only a select number of licensed eBay partners and developers, but ultimately shifted how goods are now sold on the web.
- Amazon – On July 16, 2002, Amazon launched Amazon.com Web Services. This allowed developers to incorporate Amazon.com content and features into their own websites, and let third party sites search and display products from Amazon.com in an XML format.
These three companies forever changed how we do business online. In 2019, they still dominate the API playing field and impact the commercial landscape. They’ve evolved their businesses while simultaneously transforming the commercial landscape by being more organized, agile, and efficient when it comes to APIs. They’ve made them available to partners and third party providers, who have in turn enabled them to grow, evolve, and lead the conversation in the industries they’ve come to dominate.
Making the web much more social
In 2004, a shift in the API landscape began to emerge. Salesforce, eBay, and Amazon continued to iterate and evolve their own API efforts, but a new breed of API providers started to pop up. This new group changed how we use the web and share information with the people around us, both in the real world and virtually. These new APIs weren’t as directly linked to commercial value as their counterparts, but they provided value to their organizations, and became lucrative platforms down the road.
Around this time there were four major developments that set the stage for the incredible growth that happened from 2006 through 2012.
- Delicious – In 2003, a new service for storing, sharing, and discovering web bookmarks emerged called del.icio.us. It allowed you to view them via a web interface, but if you changed the extension from “.html” to “.xml” you’d receive a machine readable list of your bookmarks. Developers took advantage of this by building widgets and other embeddable features fit for the budding field of social media.
- Flickr – In February 2004, the popular photo sharing site Flickr launched. Six months later they produced their now infamous API, which allowed users to easily embed their photos on web pages and social media. Flickr quickly became the image platform of choice for the emerging social media movement.
- Facebook – In August 2006, Facebook launched its long-awaited development platform and API. Version 1.0 allowed developers to access Facebook users’ friends, photos, events, and profile information, and helped Facebook become of the most popular social networks to date.
- Twitter – In September 2006, Twitter introduced its own API in response to developers increasingly scraping content and data from the platform. Twitter incorporated APIs into almost every feature of the product we know today, from its mobile application to the share button.
It took another couple of years, but by 2010, social media had overtaken the population, and APIs formed the backbone. APIs became how we connected with friends and developed business networks, shared images and video, and relayed stories from our personal and professional lives. Facebook and Twitter dominated, all while relying heavily on their communities, third party developers, and advocates to expand their reach, grow their audience, and set the stage for a new generation of social influence powered by APIs.
Moving everything into the Cloud
As this new social reality unfolded, a seismic shift occurred that would completely transform how business was done online. Having used APIs to power their commercial visions with unprecedented success, Amazon became the model for the next generation of startups and enterprises alike.
Amazon’s model was API-focused across its organization. Internally, all shared digital resources were required to have an API. As companies followed their lead, thus began one of the most fundamental shifts in how we view digital resources. Two new Amazon Web Services soon emerged that would rock our world.
- Amazon Simple Storage (S3) – Amazon began offering a basic storage service that was solely accessible via API and CLI. Suddenly essential digital resources were made available using low cost web infrastructure. A pay-as-you-go model was introduced as a solution to monetizing digital assets in this new online economy.
- Amazon Elastic Compute (EC2) – Just six months after S3 was released, Amazon would release another service called EC2. It provided servers that developers could leverage to deploy the necessary infrastructure for the next generation of applications.
Amazon Web Services changed everything. It demonstrated that web APIs could be used to deploy infrastructure, generate revenue, and fundamentally change the way companies do business. But there was one more element that, when combined with the cloud, would impact our world in ways we could never have imagined.
Everything is becoming more mobile
In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. It radically changed not only how we engaged with our mobile phones, but how we engaged with the online world. In that same year, Google responded by launching Android: an open source mobile platform. These developments spurred a massive investment in new startups looking to provide much-needed resources and applications to meet the growing public demand. A few of these API-first startups became the blueprint for how APIs are delivered today.
- Foursquare – In March 2009, Foursquare launched at the SXSW interactive festival in Austin, TX. Foursquare was a location-based mobile platform that made cities more interesting to explore. Users collect points and virtual badges in return for checking in and sharing their location with friends. This was a brand new type of mobile app, utilizing APIs to deliver a new generation of location-aware, API-driven applications.
- Instagram – The mobile evolution of the Internet was underway when on October 6, 2010, Instagram launched its photo-sharing iPhone application. Less than three months later, it had one million users. Instagram focused on delivering a powerful but simple iPhone app that solved common problems with the quality of mobile photos as well as user frustration around sharing them. Immediately, many users complained about the lack of an Instagram API. One developer took it upon himself to reverse engineer how the iPhone app worked, and built his own unofficial Instagram API on top of private Instagram APIs in December. By January, Instagram had shut down the rogue API, but had also announced that it was building one of its own.
- Twilio – In 2007, a new API-as-a-product platform launched called Twilio. This introduced a voice API, which allowed developers to make and receive phone calls via any cloud application, and capitalized on the growing need for voice-enabled apps. Over the next decade, Twilio became synonymous with the essential resources we need on our phones like voice, SMS, email, and other messaging and communication applications.
The mobile evolution of the web made APIs what they are today. Commerce, social, and the Cloud laid the foundation, but mobile put the web in our pockets. Our phones enabled us to take more photos, record new videos, and share more stories. API-powered mobile applications have led to waves of evolution not just in mobile phones, but in any object that can be connected to the Internet. They’ve opened up entirely new frontiers when it comes to how we create, transmit, store, and share data online.
APIs powering next-generation devices
While mobile application developers were busy developing APIs to deliver resources to the next generation of applications, some of them also began thinking about how everyday objects could be connected to the web. If devices such as cameras, thermostats, speakers, microphones, and sensors could connect to WiFi or cellular networks, they could also send or receive data, content, media, and other digital resources via this magical new place called “the Cloud”. Common objects were granted a new life by allowing users to connect in ways they could never have imagined just a few years before.
- Fitbit – Fitbit was established in March of 2017 and set out to deliver a range of products including wireless-enabled wearable technology devices that could measure data like step count, heart rate, quality of sleep, and various other fitness metrics. It connected our health and activity to the cloud, and opened up a whole new industry around connected, wearable applications powered by APIs.
- Nest – Now owned by Google, Nest began in 2010 as Nest Labs, and first produced a connected home thermostat. Later on, Nest released a smoke detector and series of home cameras, all available via a rich API developer ecosystem.
- Alexa – In November 2014, Amazon announced Alexa alongside their Echo product, dubbed as a smart speaker. Alexa is a virtual assistant that is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time updates. Each feature leverages the API developer ecosystem to deliver a new generation of voice-enabled applications.
These are just three of the more well known devices that are being connected to the Internet—there are thousands more, all built on top of the API ecosystem. This connectivity showcases how APIs can be about much more than just building desktop, web, and mobile applications. They can be put to work creating what many call an “Internet of Everything.” Connected devices continue to demonstrate the multi-channel power of APIs when it comes to delivering data, content, media, and algorithmic capabilities to a multitude of different applications. APIs are no longer just at startups—due to their success, mainstream corporations, organizations, institutions, and government agencies are beginning to adopt them at scale.
We are only just beginning the journey
This narrative represents less than twenty years of history. It’s only the beginning, but we have the building blocks for a connected world. Web APIs can be used to connect almost anything to the Internet, and are regularly being used to invent entirely new products and services, as well as constructing ecosystems. In 2010, innovative startups were putting APIs to work, and in 2019, mainstream industries are putting APIs to work. The collective momentum of industry change that is being set into motion will continue to shift the landscape, making it a challenge for some to keep up. Those who master the deployment and integration of APIs, who are able to adapt and transform, will lead the way into the future. You may not need to become an expert, but a basic understanding of APIs will help you speak to where we go from here.