APIs are an innovation engine for developers

APIsAPIs, or application programmable interfaces, are an important tool for mobile developers because they can help them create more useful applications, enhance their products and shorten the development cycle.

So it's no surprise that the universe of APIs is expanding, and rapidly. ProgrammableWeb, which tracks the API market and provides a comprehensive API repository, has more than 5,800 APIs in its directory today, double the number it had in its inventory a year ago. Companies are releasing about 70 APIs each week. The mobile app phenomenon is stimulating that growth because frequently when a mobile app user clicks a button or sends or retrieves data, an API is engaged.

"The number one driver of the release of APIs is mobile," said John Musser, founder of ProgrammableWeb.

Twitter has perhaps had the most success offering its APIs to developers. Twitters APIs are used in hundreds of third-party apps and drive more API traffic daily than any other company's implementations. National Public Radio is another example of a successful mobile API strategy: Within 18 months of using its API to launch Android and iOS apps, more than half of the traffic on NPR's web site originated from mobile devices, Musser said.

Operators want developers to use their APIs
For a couple years now mobile operators have wanted developers to adopt APIs that access network capabilities for carrier billing, messaging, and location-awareness, to compete with over-the-top applications sold by Internet firms. Operators also want to drive new revenues with API-based apps. These efforts have been intensifying. The steady stream of APIs entering the market is creating new competition for developer attention, putting more pressure on operators to gain interest in their APIs.

Greg Brail, CIO of Apigee

Greg Brail, CIO of Apigee

Most mobile operators now have API programs for developers and the programs are growing, said Greg Brail, CIO of Apigee, which provides API infrastructure and management services for organizations like AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and the Wholesale Application Community.

If an operator does not yet have an API program they will before long. They have to, Brail said. "They want to be more than a carrier of bits. They want to unlock the power of their networks," he added.

The Wholesale Application Community, a global alliance of operators offering a cross-operator API platform, launched an in-app operator billing API in February that can be used by developers to facilitate mobile payments for virtual goods, music and games on any participating network. The API launched with eight operators, including AT&T. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and T-Mobile are members, but they have not yet launched services.

The WAC has about 30 developers engaged with the program, said Erik de Kroon, vice president of devices and products for the organization. To date, European and U.S. developers have created 10 apps that already have launched or soon will launch in both markets.

The pace of commercialization is not strong for this platform, which makes it possible to create and launch apps within days. But developers want to introduce their apps when all operators in a given country have launched, and that's not possible yet, de Kroon said. He said the WAC expects to have all member operators in the U.S. launched later this year. In some Western European countries, full operator coverage will be available this summer.

Hackathons and streamlined tools
In the meantime, operators are pushing independently to recruit developers to use their APIs. Among other strategies, they are using hackathons. AT&T Mobility and Facebook co-hosted a hackathon last weekend that introduced new tools and APIs that developers can use to add carrier billing and SMS to their apps.

Don Pitt

Don Pitt, VP of Marketing at Verious

Operators are also working with API vendors to make working with these technologies as easy as possible for developers, according to Don Pitt, vice president of marketing at Verious.

Verious offers an online API marketplace and management service to simplify use of APIs, which can often require sophisticated development when applied in mobile applications. Verious is turning APIs into pre-built software components that are easy to install. It is also handling business agreements for developers. The company will offer some components and associated premium data services for free if the API-enabled apps can be supported by advertising.

Pitt said that Verious is working with a number of operators to turn their APIs into components to spur adoption by developers. These components are often offered for free because the application will drive revenues for the operator.

"Operators want to increase the adoption of their APIs by developers. They want to provide more benefits to developers and that's where mobile components come in," Pitt said.

The latest API announcements
This week the GSMA launched its GSMA OneAPI Gateway with three Canadian operators. The gateway offers application developers a standard set of APIs that make it easy to launch applications for mobile customers regardless of the device or network they are using. Carriers participating in the program include Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications and Telus.    

Operators are continuing to find ways to expose network assets through APIs. The Small Cell Forum today released a set of APIs that developers can use to create mobile apps that access operator small cells. The organization said the APIs can help developers deliver consistent location- and presence-related services that complement existing location technologies, especially in indoor and dense urban locations.

The universe of companies participating in the API ecosystem is also expanding. Last week IBM jumped on the bandwagon, announcing API services for enterprises that want to developers to create mobile, mobile and cloud applications. IBM's involvement "shows that this is really a technology concept that is here to stay," Apigee said.

Business models vary
However, there are some things to consider when working with APIs. Businss models vary, for example, and developers will need to determine which approach is best for them. ProgrammableWeb has identified 16 business models --some are free and some are paid. Some business models include multiple mechanisms for generating revenue, including revenue sharing or indirect payments based on traffic or other factors. The indirect model is the largest group, Musser said.

Developers do need to be alert for unexpected costs. Certain API providers can charge a monthly fee, for example, which scales with the number of API calls from an app. Many developers have no idea how many API calls will result if they add a new API-dependent feature to their app and can be surprised by this if they don't prepare for it.