APIs Unleash the Creative Power of the Mix-and-Match Web

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It’s been said that the true power of the cloud isn’t in its scalability or cost efficiency but rather in the ability for people and organizations to combine applications in powerful new ways. You see simple examples of this every time you visit a webpage that shows retail sites overlaid on a Google map or click a button to pay for something with PayPal. Developers didn’t need to create those functions from scratch; they merely embedded a call to another program using an application programming interface (API).

The popularity of APIs has exploded with the arrival of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. ProgrammableWeb.com lists more than 14,000 public APIs, up from just a handful 10 years ago. Forrester Research predicts that companies will spend nearly $3 billion on API management over the next five years.

APIs have the potential to not only create intriguing new combinations of services but also to change the way your business works. For example, Humana, the $48 billion managed healthcare company, collects massive amounts of data in claims, biometrics, and other clinical areas that medical researchers, insurers, and hospitals can use to enhance efficiency and improve healthcare.

Humana is using APIs to selectively expose data outside the company. Using a management platform, it can identify and authenticate partners while controlling at a granular level exactly what data is exposed to whom. It even has a patient-focused program called Humana at Home that enables patients to tap into their own medical records for use with home monitoring and fitness devices. Doctors can keep an eye on their patients’ progress remotely and spot potential problems earlier than was ever before possible.

“APIs afford us collaboration with communities of entrepreneurs and partner companies to drive value and make us easy to do business with,” said Paul Friedman, director of IT.

APIs acquire new power when combined with cloud computing. Cloud platforms make it possible to distribute information at a scale many companies can’t provide on internal infrastructure. AccuWeather Inc., which handles billions of forecast requests daily, moved its API services from its own servers to the Microsoft Azure cloud, enabling it to triple the number of API requests it handles daily, from 4 billion to more than 12 billion. That gives AccuWeather greater room to grow and, most importantly, brings real-time, lifesaving information to many more people around the world.

Mobile computing has also given new importance to the use of APIs as a lightweight, fast way to exchange information. Instead of downloading large amounts of data, mobile apps can place a simple call to an API to get just the information they need.

That means companies that want to onboard mobile customers or business partners can do so with a minimum of setup time by exposing data and services as APIs. That’s one way Q-nomy Inc. is bringing on customers for its customer engagement platform.

Q-nomy builds software that optimizes the customer experience. Companies like banks and retail stores can tap into its service to let customers book their own appointments and also to make sure engagements are personalized. A business that wants to add Q-nomy functionality to its website or mobile app can do so quickly by tying into the company’s API. Hosting in the Microsoft Azure cloud ensures that functionality is always available.

Even if you don’t choose to expose APIs to partners or customers, you can use them to integrate SaaS applications. APIs are a means to combine functionality from external applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP), with internal functions like catalogs and product configurators. APIs can also be used to combine processes from multiple SaaS applications into something that delivers unique value to your business. For example, you can tap into public APIs to integrate maps with social media conversations, then overlay your retail locations to get a “heat map” of topics by geography.

When selecting SaaS vendors, check out the richness and variety of APIs they offer. The more options you have, the more creative you can be in harvesting the riches of public services.

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