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Myth-busting APIs for business

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio)

Most business professionals who’ve spent any time working in or with a technology company will have most likely heard of APIs. It's one of those terms that people sort-of understand but not fully because it sounds complicated - a topic that’s traditionally been more the domain of the experts in your organization’s IT department.

To be clear, getting to grips with the concept of APIs, or application programming interfaces, is surprisingly straightforward and useful. Similar to its end-user equivalent the GUI, or graphical user interface, APIs can simply be defined as a software method of controlling programs - they differ only in that a GUI tends to only control how a user interacts with a program, whilst an API is typically used to make programs work together independently of the user.

Essentially, APIs create rule sets that allow applications to communicate with one another. Every time data is transferred between a pair (or more) of programs or applications, APIs are responsible. To give a real-world example: when a user types Facebook's URL into their browser and hits the Return key, a request is subsequently transmitted to Facebook's remote servers.

That browser then processes the response code it receives and displays the page. For the browser, Facebook's server is an API - and behind the scenes the browser is communicating with the part of its server that receives requests and sends responses.

Innovating with APIs

Given how complex our online interactions have become, it's no surprise that APIs get mentioned frequently in both mainstream and developer communities. APIs enable businesses to free themselves from time consuming development and concerns and restrictive contract obligations, similar to how Software as a Service (SaaS) revolutionized the business landscape.

For example, internet directory company Yelp and its searches use the Google API to enable users to find both restaurant reviews and locations. In this way, Yelp is able to simplify the number and type of functions users can carry out in specific code by clearly defining exactly how programs will interact with other software in any given situation. Google on the other hand is able to stipulate what developers can do in designing and publishing the API, as well as what they can access, and how they can integrate specific web services or resources into their apps.

This allows businesses to rid themselves of the need to build a single core application that tries to do everything. Rather, software developers are now able to focus on building apps that can delegate specific responsibilities to “off-the-shelf” remote software better suited to the task, sparing their own bandwidth.

Communications APIs

The communications sector has witnessed marked growth recently in API development and usage is the area of communications, both business and consumer. With the pandemic accelerating home and remote working trends exponentially, we’re seeing a secular change in the market, on the scale of moving from mainframe to client services and the way the internet and mobility forever changed the world. Companies are boosting IT spending on unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) along with video conferencing, collaboration and voice technology solutions that can scale upwards with company growth.

There are many solutions on the market however, and picking the right one for your use cases matters a lot. Given how quickly the technology landscape evolves, using communications APIs make sense as a way of avoiding the expense of developing tools from scratch, in addition to harnessing the power of advanced features and relative ease of implementation of established API providers.

Useful features such as click-to-call, video calling, automated SMS messaging, and beyond can quickly be bolted on and integrated to deliver personalized and flexible customer service globally. Companies are then more free to spend time on designing customer-facing tools that customers actually want while the back-end is taken care of.

Handling multi-channel message delivery is also now increasingly important, and APIs can help streamline this effectively. Today, APIs can enable companies to automatically prioritize the sending of messages on the channels that customers are engaged with such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, as well as to gain intelligence on their customers' preferences, building a better customer service on the whole.

Communications APIs, particularly communications platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) APIs also enable the use of custom integrations which can be a powerful way to amplify the effect of your customer offering. In this way, businesses can create innovative communications experiences that "off-the-shelf" applications just can't support, enabling businesses to react quickly to customer needs they may not have anticipated.

For example, API integrations now exist which allow callers to automatically schedule call-back times to suit all parties. By building a simple paging application to check busy call recipients' Google Calendar for available times, customers are able to automate and streamline a hitherto finicky process, enabling a better experience for the customer.

Having both a cloud communications application's native features and the option to leverage CPaaS APIs allows developers to build workflows that deliver the most value to the business and its customers. That can be a unique use case that boosts productivity or a custom application that alleviates a whole set of customer pain points.

Taking advantage of Web 3.0

The Web continues to evolve as businesses and consumers alike search for deeper, more engaging, experiences, and APIs are at the forefront of this change. As what’s become known as the semantic web comes into sharp focus by way of innovations in machine learning, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), the traditional API is evolving to facilitate this increasingly seamless integration of humans and machines.

The ‘request-response' pattern outlined at the start of this article is giving way to a hyper-interactive web application in which humans, and machines collaborate in real-time. In this ‘event-driven' approach, APIs themselves are involved in the interaction, increasing their “intelligence” and enabling them to make decisions on behalf of the user. This enables a new dimension of user/developer experience with APIs as the core “pipelines” for data, pushing forward to a brave new world of communication innovation.

As the world of APIs has evolved, an “API economy” of sorts has sprung up around it focused on facilitating an ecosystem of user-focused apps that support line-of-business goals. As APIs become increasingly sophisticated and as prevalent as the app, many developers have moved towards exclusively building and hosting APIs, rather than building the apps themselves. Perhaps the future will see the API becoming more lucrative than the app - without a doubt, there’s still everything to play for.

Omar Javaid, president, Vonage API Platform, Vonage