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The secret to getting rich in 2012: Open APIs

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Open ... and Shut If the last decade was all about open source, the next decade will be about open APIs. However, as with open source, APIs aren't necessarily a guarantee of billions in the bank. They're simply the ante for playing the technology game at scale. That scale will be determined by who gives developers the best access to data, and that access is a function of open APIs.

Yes, developers. Politicians may focus on ways to get consumers to spend more money in an effort to rebuild their economies, but the world's economies are increasingly founded upon software services, services that are developed and consumed by developers. These developers are, then, "the new kingmakers," and not simply of some random technology company. They are behind the rise or fall of 21st Century news (Twitter), communication (Facebook), and more (Salesforce, Google, etc).

To thrive, these developers need APIs. Lots of them, though standardized and well-documented.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady hints at this in a recent post that discusses ways to unleash the "age of data", by describing legal handicaps placed on Redmonk's efforts to get at analytics data through an open API. Cut off the API through whatever means, and you've cut off a developer's ability to not only grow her service, but also yours.

Given the importance of APIs, it's surprising just how hard it can be to release them. Dan Woods calls this out, reporting on research he and others had done on APIs: "API programs [are often] started in secret, nurtured by the true believers in a clandestine way, slipped into production, and then brought to the awareness of senior management after the API was shown to be a success." Developers, in other words, are having to secretly succeed for their business.

This is silly, if for no other reason than one of the great benefits of APIs is how much they can help with the integration of internal software services. That is, software that runs behind the firewall. Indeed, O'Reilly's Anant Jhingran argues that for all the positive noise made about public APIs at Twitter and Facebook, the "real revolution" is that "enterprises of all sizes are API-enabling their back-end systems". This makes the enterprise permeable to partners but also to its own employees, and is the number one reason enterprises are adopting APIs.

APIs are the key to making internal integration easy.

At one time we looked to open source to fill this function. Companies like CollabNet sprung up to enable internal software collaboration. But it turns out that APIs prove to be an easier way to achieve similar goals. Instead of having to learn an entire code base, I just need a well-documented API to get access to software services. Minimal fuss, maximum productivity.

This may be the point in APIs: to give developers a way to focus on services provided by software, and not the software itself. This shift from open-source software to open APIs becomes ever more critical as we move to cloud services, where developers can no longer access the underlying software. As the industry moves from software to Infrastructure as a Service to Platform as a Service, APIs are the key to the shift, as analyst Krishnan Subramanian details.

But not just any APIs. The industry can't stomach a million competing APIs any more than it could digest a huge array of open-source projects for CMS, ERP, etc. We need APIs, but we also need standardization.

Take OpenStack, for example. OpenStack has taken on the daunting task of unseating Amazon Web Services, but it has made its life dramatically more difficult by trying to move the industry away from Amazon's APIs. For better or for worse, the AWS APIs are the public standard and, as Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth posits, "The hackers and funders and leaders and advocates of OpenStack, and any number of other cloud infrastructure projects both open source and proprietary, would be better off figuring out how to leverage [the AWS API] standardisation than trying to compete with it, simply because no other API is likely to gain the sort of ecosystem we see around AWS today."

Shuttleworth is right about OpenStack, and about the larger industry. It's better to rally around a common API, much as we rallied around Linux. In the case of cloud computing, cloud expert and former Googler Sam Johnston thinks the future is OpenCloud, and other industry observers have their own preferred horses in the various races.

But at the heart of each is APIs. Open APIs are the new open source, except they require less geeky access to lines of code, and more programmatic interaction with software services. As an added bonus, open APIs don't come with the baggage of licensing fundamentalists. Praise the heavens! ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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