From Amazon to Stripe: How APIs are powering the digital economy

Back in 2002, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos threatened to fire any employee connecting systems without using an API. Quick to grasp the potential of APIs, Bezos now sits at the helm of the world’s third-largest tech company. Not bad work for an online bookseller.

If your business is new to the world of APIs, let us run you through the basics, from what an API actually is to best practices for ensuring you get the most value from yours. All of which you can do without threatening the livelihood of your team.

What is an API?

As Julie Andrews suggested, let’s start at the very beginning. An API is an application programming interface. It’s a system that connects other systems. Our APAC Technical Director David Garvey likens it to a waiter in a restaurant, running between the customers at the tables and the kitchen. The waiter is the unsung hero who makes the dining experience possible: without him, it would be a chaotic mass of shouting customers at the pass and stressed out chefs slinging random plates of food at them. It just wouldn’t work.

Connectivity through the ages

APIs have risen to prominence as our connectivity has increased. Back in 1832, the telegram allowed us to use Morse code to send signals over distances. 40 or so years, the telephone meant that we could do the same with voice.

It wasn’t for about another century that the personal computer came on the scene. At that point, users were able to send emails, visit websites and even indulge in some (very slow) rudimentary online shopping.

The mobile phone followed, providing users with the ability to communicate in private and while on the move – far more than fixed-line telephones or personal computers that tended to be a family machine.

Connectivity took another leap forward when Apple released the iPhone in 2007. Suddenly, third party developers had the opportunity to create their own applications en masse. This triggered a rapid and large scale increase in the number of ways that we could communicate. It also meant that APIs were becoming more important than ever in connecting different systems, from photo apps to social media.

Now, digital personal assistants like Alexa, keyless entry and connected light bulbs are all examples of how the level of connectivity continues to skyrocket. We can shop online to our collective hearts’ content. We can order food. We can explore cities half a world away through video, then navigate our way around them using maps on our mobiles when we visit. We can also access an incredible wealth of information on the internet.

APIs: the unsung heroes of tech

Wikipedia informs us that:

“An application programming interface (API) is an interface or communication protocol between different parts of a computer program intended to simplify the implementation and maintenance of software.”

 

Catchy. You can see why our David Garvey chose the example of the waiter in the restaurant to describe it!

Essentially, APIs allow you to communicate with other systems and receive responses from them. This has plenty of potential when it comes to having a positive impact on a business’ profitability. It’s why modern tech businesses (Facebook, eBay, Netflix) are API-driven. With so many apps out there and so many users, the number of potential opportunities is massive.

This is precisely what Jeff Bezos over at Amazon realised back in the early 2000s, when most of us had never even heard of an API (not that too many people have even now – hence the ‘unsung’ part of them being the heroes of the tech world).

API best practices

APIs are now behind billions of transactions for Google and Twitter every day, and close to a trillion a day for Amazon. They’re driving growth for thousands of companies across a huge range of industries. 

So, what can APIs do for your business? Well, they can allow your systems to communicate with each other, unlock the value of internal systems, help structure your data, deal with a lack of standardisation and even smooth out a great big spaghetti mess of connections. And that’s just for starters. Ultimately, a clear API strategy can make your business more efficient and more profitable.

Let’s look at Stripe as an example. Stripe’s API has plenty of good points – here are ten of them:

  • Predictable URLs mean it’s easy for developers to interact with the API.
  • Use of the JSON data format is modern, efficient and easily consumable by languages like JavaScript.
  • Support of cross-origin resource sharing means that Stripe’s services are easily embeddable in websites.
  • Their test API means that developers can test integration at zero cost.
  • Meaningful errors help developers resolve issues.
  • Authentication ensures security and gives users peace of mind.
  • Rated requests keep the system from becoming overwhelmed.
  • Regular version updates allow for new features and fixes to roll out easily.
  • The developer portal furnishes developers with knowledge.
  • They’re open-source contributors, thus fostering a community around the Stripe brand.

So that’s our quick round-up of some API basics and best practices to get you thinking. If you’re ready to take the next step and go for a fast, scalable and modern open-source API gateway, management platform and developer portal with flexible deployment options, you know where we are!