In 2016, get ready for the mobile API explosion
Application Development

In 2016, get ready for the mobile API explosion

This is ‘the API economy’, or so we are told. It is fair to say that the facilities modern internet sites and services provide are revolutionary: anyone with a modicum of web programming knowledge can grab an API key and, within a matter of minutes, be using information from the site in their own programs.

Information is sent as structured text across standard web protocols such as HTTPS. Meanwhile, scripting languages such as PHP incorporate tools to process information thus received, turning it into searchable arrays which can be easily interrogated and manipulated. And furthermore, such a model has been incorporated in just about every web-based software offering. Quicken and Sage for accounting, for example; Strava and Garmin for sport; Trello and Toggl for task management. No startup worth its salt would consider launching a service without offering an API. 

The consequence, as many have written, is an explosion in innovation as all such sites have learned the benefits of integrating with each other. APIs are the web version of 'co-opetition’, that fatherless child of co-operation and competition, in which organisations have to collaborate with their rivals in order to stay in the game. 

Unsurprising, then, that APIs are having a business impact on companies that depend on the web for business. The API economy requires organisations to define strategy around what they integrate with, versus what they build themselves and how they can build on third-party platforms versus how they can add their own value. 

In some cases, web-based companies can succeed or fail based on the quality of their API. As AppDynamics founder Jyoti Bansal says, “APIs themselves are becoming the product or the service companies deliver.” And Salesforce.com, a pioneer in the space, generates half its revenue from APIs today. 

All this is true, with a caveat. Even if APIs have catalysed a good part of the online service revolution, the mobile world has not benefited. Sure, mobile apps can fire off HTTP requests and read the results. But the way in which apps are developed still reflects the old ways of software development.

Whereas a web page can pull and display information from another site through a handful of lines of script code, a mobile app requires considerably more effort. Mobile apps are (by and large) compiled rather than interpreted. They require desktop-based development environments and, above all, attention to a broad range of details from multitasking criteria to network availability.

The mobile programming model is not particularly wrong; however, by its nature, it cannot deliver the same benefits as the web. There cannot currently be a mobile-based API economy, for example. Mobile development projects will generally be measured in weeks, rather than days, constricting the ability to test new ideas.

Where facilities exist to simplify mobile development, they are frequently proprietary or in limited use. This partially comes from the inevitable Android vs iOS platform choice — cross-platform development packages do exist, but (as yet) there is no ‘one tool to rule them all’, which (in the form of open standards) has been a major enabler of the API economy. 

So what, the discerning reader might say, the mobile development environment is maturing.

In October, for example, Amazon launched its Mobile Hub, a toolset to enable the auto-generation of mobile apps (at least in part) that make use of Amazon Web Services. And Intel announced what it termed its Multi-OS Engine (MOE) to enable Java apps to run on both Android and iOS, creating a non-proprietary bridge between the two. 

While neither offers a final answer, both contain elements of what might be termed symptoms of the coming rapture — that is, the moment when mobile developers no longer have to think about what is going on under the bonnet of what they are building.

When (not if) this happens, we can expect a similar level of innovation and diversification in the mobile world, as we have seen in the web world. Or, put more simply, a moment when any organisation, large or small, can create a simple, effective app which builds upon the power of the web. 

The API economy may have been seen as ‘fuelling the second Web boom’ (to quote Deloitte) but it is only a matter of time before we see a second mobile boom, driven by the removal of shackles on mobile apps.

When this comes, and it will, expect to see the mobile platform become a business differentiator not in terms of whether or not a corporate mobile app exists, but how fast such apps can evolve to meet the fast-moving needs of their users. 

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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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