The rise and rise of APIs

By Mark Woolfenden | 24 September 2018

Much has been written about the role of application programmable interfaces or APIs, which are in ubiquitous use these days, although mention APIs to experienced technology professionals and you get raised eyebrows and shaking of heads in unison, decrying API novelty with a diatribe evidencing long term prior use. In simple terms, APIs specify how software components should interact when handling data between digital environments and have indeed been in widespread use, under the bonnet, in applications and user interfaces for almost two decades. The curiosity triggered in the Technology community over how APIs have become monetisable products, is both fascinating and encouraging amidst a modern consumerist culture of on demand and single-use disposal of goods and services.

The financial industry, locked for many years in opposing data standards, should embrace the resilience of a respected, albeit now aged means to connect modern software and increasingly data environments, coming up to twenty years after its inception, and should rejoice that good digital engineering can still demonstrate great value, if only in virtual characteristics, to that of its counterparts in the physical world.

Early APIs from eBay, Google and Amazon, set APIs on a parallel, but initially back room path in support of the meteoric rise in web services, resonating somewhat with the US inventor, Thomas Edison, who did not actually have that single lightbulb moment, just a whole series of them over hundreds of variants, tweaking his initial design until it was good enough to be granted a patent. The breaking out of the back office and the undeniable success of APIs finally brought them into the marketers' viewfinder as a means to promote a firm's position in leading technology, a mantel that has since been thoroughly eclipsed though, by other, high PR value technologies. The resulting near two decades related success of web services has enabled significant investment, curation and evolution of APIs which have played a major part in new learning and transactional technologies.

As streaming content on demand contrasts markedly to firing up the DVD player, inserting the disc and pressing play, APIs speed up the interaction between connected systems to provide responses to the requests that triggered them. With multiple step changes in cloud infrastructure, where commercial APIs have typically resided, the once distant prospect of using APIs in real time trading solutions is now a reality. APIs pervade all the modern technologies, competing with and securing breath-taking investments, from natural language processing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation and blockchain, proving that APIs really have come of age, in the right place and at the right time.

The deployment of APIs for on demand data services, enable a firm to scale its business costs to match the trajectory of its growth. The easy set-up and integration capability of APIs also hand off cost and risk of extended IT development projects and critically reduce the time to market by enabling significantly more time to focus on specialist tasks that provide a company's competitive edge in the general development of its products and services. For data providers, new products and services can be trialled from the outset, where low, on demand costs can defer heavyweight financial commitment until the successful validation of new business provides both the visibility and budget to right size the choice and scale of investment.

The continual re-engineering of firms' trading systems present the age old challenge of buy or build, with upgrades to existing systems or replacements with new solutions being increasingly challenged by new fintech companies, cutting and splicing legacy systems with best of breed component plug-ins. Agile new entrants are leveraging APIs to provide these new solutions which can dislodge, or at the very least, force incumbents to really up their game, and under the halo of a more viable change agenda, new technology investment is now matched with a much stronger C level will to implement it.

We should not, however, be evangelising APIs as the universal solution for everything, they are only a means to an end, but we should, in the words of a retiring Chairman of a plc, always and rightly, still focus on "content, not form".

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