Craig Burton

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This is a joint post with 3scale’s Steven Willmott (njyx on twitter). I dreamt up the original idea of the five axioms and we have been iterating since.

The Five Axioms of the API Economy

This blog post is the fifth in a series of blog posts outlining the axioms of the API economy – and covers the fifth and last axiom. However, it won’t be the last post in the series – once we’ve covered all the axioms, we’ll proceed and talk about their consequences also.

The five axioms we’re covering are as follows, in order:

  1. Everything and everyone will be API enabled.
  2. APIs are core to every cloud, social and mobile computing strategy.
  3. APIs are an economic imperative.
  4. Organizations must provide their core competence through APIs.
  5. Organizations must consume core competences of others through APIs.

Axiom #5: Organizations Must Consume Core Competences of others through APIs

The fifth and final axiom is the converse of the fourth axiom. Just as there is value in exposing APIs for others to consume, there is value in consuming the APIs of others. So much value in fact it is very likely a critical failure not to do so. Examples of this have already been given with Axiom #2 – for social, cloud and mobile (the former two in particular), the amount of functionality now available via API to simple use “out of the box” is staggering.

More specifically – the effort required to rebuild the features of many PAAS, IAAS, SAAS systems to the same level of functionality and consistency is beyond the capacity of all but the largest companies. Replication of some services is furthermore impossible – while it is feasible to write code for a microblogging service, Twitter is Twitter since it commands a global audience, not because of the functionality it provides.
The richness of functionality now available “by API” extends into multiple different realms:

  • Data: impressive data catalogues of many types – many unique.
  • Communications: SMS, Telephony, Instant Messaging, Video, Email.
  • Processing: IAAS, PAAS platforms or specialized services like Aniomoto.
  • Transactions: Payment APIs, Subscription Billing and others.

With such a rich set of tools available, developing systems has become significantly easier than it was 5-10 years ago. While choices need to be made both between providers and which elements should be developed in-house it is clear that many of these systems have the possibility to be of very significant value to an organization.

Any work an organization does that this is not focused on its core competence is arguably overhead. In other words, if comparable competitors were to use external APIs to achieve some important but non-core / non-differentiating functionality and this worked at least as well as an in-house build, this competitor would have freed up time to move further ahead on their core product. The opportunity cost of in-house builds of non-differentiating services is great.

It is therefore an imperative for organizations to:

  • Identify what their own core competence / differentiation is and ensure that the majority of effort is targeted towards this.
  • Where possible consume APIs of others to bring in functionality that is non-core in in this way.

There is a final, subtle angle to this axiom – it suggests consuming the core competences of others, not any competence. This means that if an API is chosen for use, it should ideally be something which is clearly and obviously linked to the core business of the organization providing it. This ensures that:

  • The provider is likely to remain committed to the API.
  • They derive value (economic or otherwise) from third party use of the API and hence should continue to support it.

These are all very strong indicators that the API will be maintained and improved over time. They also means that in many cases (though not all) there are likely competing companies providing similar APIs – providing a switching path in the case of failures on the part of the chosen provider.

If an API is a secondary, side business for an API Provider or does not seem to be core, this may be a higher risk integration – generally assurances from the API Provider should be sought.

Summary

Axiom #5 makes it clear that any API strategy not only includes the publishing of APIs for other constituencies to participate with but for organizations to plan on integrating the core competencies of their constituencies into their applications services and infrastructure. Make sure your organization understands the dual nature of API publishing an API consuming.

This is a joint post with 3scale’s Steven Willmott (njyx on twitter). I dreamt up the original idea of the five axioms and we have been iterating since.

The Five Axioms of the API Economy

This blog post is the fourth in a series of five blog posts outlining the axioms of the API economy. The post follows on from the first three Axiom posted (also see an intro to the series in the first Axiom). The five axioms we’re covering are as follows, in order:

  1. Everything and everyone will be API enabled.
  2. APIs are core to every cloud, social and mobile computing strategy.
  3. APIs are an economic imperative.
  4. Organizations must provide their core competence through APIs.
  5. Organizations must consume core competences of others through APIs.

Axiom #4 addresses the issue of what should an organization choose to API-enable first and why.

Axiom #4: Organizations Must Provide Core Competence through APIs

The fourth axiom contains two core elements. When an Organization chooses to provide APIs:

  • Those APIs should provide substantial value to their target audience.
  • Those APIs should cover the Organization’s core competency.

In other words, an organization should provide APIs that some other individuals or organizations (customers, partners or the world at large) can consume and find useful. These APIs should generally be related to the organizations core business – and not a small side detail.

While these are separate, it’s easiest to understand them together. As already stated in the previous axiom, APIs have the power to generate significant economic value but:

  • This value is only unlocked if a particular API set has a user-base. These users may be customers, employees, third party partners or the world at large – but without a user base an API is a wasted investment.
  • An API is only as valuable as the data or functionality to which it provides access. So if an organization delivers a particular core competence (e.g. shipping, book retail, flight reservations, car hire), it stands to reason that the most valuable APIs this organization could provide link to and drive volume to exactly these core competencies.

Axiom 4 Graphic

Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between providing value to the target audience and using the provider’s core competence when designing and delivering an API suite. Obviously the provider should go for the “Sweet Spot” and develop APIs that focus on the provider’s core competence and deliver high value to the target audience. Anything less will meet with undesirable results.

In a theoretical example, a car hire firm may consider two APIs: 1) a data API providing historical trend analysis on US driving patterns, 2) transaction capability to book hire cars from the company’s fleet.
Both of these APIs are interesting and potentially valuable to someone (and both are worth considering). However, if the organization needs to choose between the two projects the second is clearly more valuable both to itself and its customers, partners. This is because:

  • Transactions on the API drive the hire company’s core business.
  • Transactions on the API help partners/customer carry out the key business with the organization in a new way.
  • The company can safely say it is likely to continue support for the API if it succeeds since it will be contributing to core business metrics.

For the second API however, while this could certainly be valuable, it represents a deviation from core business. The car hire company would likely not be able to back the API with as much resource. Further, the API would need a new, separate business model. Though this could certainly be welcome if revenues were significant, they would likely need to be very significant compared to the company’s core business. Worse, if the API gets significant traction, costs could rise – potentially forcing a shut down. In other words, this second API is a much more fragile proposition both for the provider and potential users of the API.

In order to reinforce this point consider some examples of companies who operate APIs that directly drive their core business:

  • The Walgreens API: subscription filling and photo printing
  • Nike+: social network enabled sports clothing
  • Twitter: read and write tweets
  • Getty Images API: stock photo search in real time

In each of these cases, APIs form a channel directly onto the company’s core business and if successful will drive more business (which would likely grow over time). This channel delivers a very clear advantage over their competitors since potential partners and customers now have increasing reasons to partner with Walgreen’s, Nike, Twitter and Getty Images specifically.

It could even be argued that over time, an API could become the single most important business channel for many companies, since mobile, partners, and product integrations could all tie into a single channel.

Interestingly, it has taken a while to learn this lesson. Many of the early APIs that were created by large organizations were offshoots or experiments that were deliberately not related to the organization’s core business. In other words, organizations wanted to explore the impact of APIs but not affect their core businesses – this approach often leads to failure of the API program since:

Summary

Becoming an API provider is driven by one key realization: ensuring an organization’s core competence is available in the simplest form possible for others to integrate into their own systems such that they can become valuable suppliers, customers and partners.

Also providers should enable API access to core competence and preserve value to the target audience. Focus on the “Sweet Spot.”

Note: This is not intended to be an argument that every organization should have a fully public open developer program. In many cases that goal wouldn’t meet business objectives nor would it provide value. Instead the axiom states that becoming a provider to some kind of audience – typically a subset or superset of an organization’s existing customer base, or a new one they wish to address – is the important focus. A fully public open API is simply the mechanism to reach a particular type of customer base.

Up next is Axiom #5: Organizations must consume core competencies of others through APIs.

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