Physical, virtual, social: Is the application network next?

Networks have always been at the heart of our society, defining our relationships, creating our experiences and ultimately shaping our lives. From the steam railways that enabled commerce between cities and towns, to the cables that paved the way for global communication over telephones and then the internet, networks have a history of redefining our way of life.     

More recently, the internet has given rise to virtual networks that allow us to connect to vast computing resources, and social networks that allow us to cultivate our own global communities. Recent estimates suggest that by next year, 2.44 billion people will be connected via social networks, illustrating the scale of influence these platforms have on our society. Facebook alone already boasts 1.86 billion active users, with 1.26 billion people signing in every day to connect with their network.     

The dawn of a new network 

In the new digital era these networks have collectively ushered in, connectivity has become the foundation of every consumer experience, business model, process, product and service. In this world, the more connections that organisations make, the more value they will be able to get out of their digital assets.     

Connectivity is critical to new technology advances in areas like the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR). None of these technologies work if you can’t connect to data and assets. However, given the number of applications, data sources and devices that companies now rely on, the old way of connecting these assets has broken down; it is too heavy, costly and resource intensive. Gluing everything together into one big, monolithic thing is a recipe for disaster in a world where digital change happens so quickly. So much so that recent research found that half of IT departments now fail to complete digital projects on time. 

Ultimately, this has brought us to a tipping point where a new type of network, an application network, is needed to connect everything together to open up new possibilities. This new type of network fundamentally changes the way that organisations think about IT delivery and connectivity.      

By allowing IT to connect the business to a catalogue of digital assets and capabilities that enable them to self-serve their own innovation projects, an application network ignites a complete cultural and functional shift. Following the principles of Metcalfe’s law, every new asset that is connected to the application network increases its overall value by making its data and capabilities available for others to discover and consume. In this way, IT ceases to be a bottleneck through which innovation must flow and instead becomes an enabler to the rest of the business. Where the current IT model involves having to deliver every project from start to finish, IT’s task is to provide just enough enablement to encourage the application network to grow, whilst championing best practices and providing governance to create a trusted ecosystem.     

The building blocks of software 

The nodes of an application network are APIs, which turn digital capabilities into reusable building blocks. The application network provides the ‘digital glue’ that enables these building blocks to be composed and recomposed for greater agility, flexibility and speed. Businesses can rapidly compose new services and make them pluggable and reusable for anyone who has access. Additionally, discovery becomes inherent and part of the engagement layer of application networks. Business teams will by default look to see if a capability they need already exists, in the same way that consumers head to the Apple App Store to see if there is ‘an app for that’.     

With an API-led approach to connectivity, business innovation accelerates rapidly, as new applications, data sources and devices can simply be ‘plugged’ into the application network, as easily as you might plug in a printer. As such, innovation can be led by anyone who has the potential to add value to the organisation’s digital ecosystem–from internal development teams to external partners. 

Ultimately, this is the beginning of the next era of the web, where APIs and application networks can make any capability available to people and machines. We are already starting to see major global organisations beginning to realise the benefits of this approach. For example, Spotify has created an application network by deploying reusable APIs to improve information sharing across its entire business and to develop applications much faster than others in the market. Unilever has similarly used an application network to remove the barriers to business innovation, by shifting the focus away from individual assignments and towards reusable platform capabilities.   

In the same way that physical, virtual and social networks have shaped society, defined relationships and created new experiences, application networks promise to usher in a new wave of business and technology innovation. Take the automotive industry for example, where software companies and car manufacturers are already vying to own the in-vehicle experience. In the future, people could be paying for experiences powered by many API-connected services, rather than the car itself. More broadly, industry is fast approaching a point where sponsored adverts are replaced with targeted APIs based on their search criteria that allow consumers to directly buy products and services from a web page.     

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities being created by API-led connectivity. Like the many connectivity revolutions that have come before, application networks will be the cornerstone upon which the next digital revolution is founded, organising API economies and shaping the course that our society charts into the future. 

Ross Mason, founder, MuleSoft 

Image Credit: Toria / Shutterstock