Run Powerful Mobile Mini-Apps With Just an API

Adam DuVander
Aug. 16 2012, 09:00AM EDT

For a couple years I've thought about creating a geo-located tagging app. The idea is that anyone could use it like Delicious, but for tagging anything they want in the real world. Learning a mobile platform and creating the backend was always too much trouble for what is really just a fun little project. Now, I could write it in potentially less time than it's taking me to write this post. The API lets developers create mini-apps within its iOS and Android apps, with access to the camera and user location.

These mini-apps are called "activities" in parlance. Behind the scenes, they're web apps that can respond to commands from the API. Whereas most mashups initiate the calls to an API, here it's the API that makes the first call to the app. Whenever someone connects to your activity within the app, it sends an event to your app. That's when you respond with the data needed to construct an interface for your mini-app. When the user fills out your form or uploads a photo, you receive another event with the data.

It's a pretty cool model for enabling developers. And it's a very different approach to APIs. It's not just about automating what can be done with an app. Nor is it simply about getting data in or out of the platform. Instead, it's a conduit between developer and user. There is potential for this as a competitor to the Amazon Mechanical Turk API, because is generic enough to support many data gathering tasks.

Current activities (most built in-house, as the platform just launched) include rating pictures of food, rating a startup, bundling photos and a help guide for Starcraft 2. Paul Rademacher, creator of the original map mashup HousingMaps, is behind the new service.

Adam DuVander -- Adam heads developer relations at Orchestrate, a database-as-a-service company. He's spent many years analyzing APIs and developer tools. Previously he worked at SendGrid, edited ProgrammableWeb and wrote for Wired and Webmonkey. Adam is also the author of mapping API cookbook Map Scripting 101.