A new not-for-profit launched by 3scale and API Evangelist aims to help speed up the process of developing APIs by encouraging the sharing of API code and descriptions. Launched at Defrag in Denver Colorado today, API Commons provides an open source-like, Creative Commons-modelled platform for developers to share and reuse API code. Co-Founder Steve Willmott spoke to ProgrammableWeb on the eve of the launch, while his fellow co-founder Kin Lane worked behind-the-scenes to upload some government open data API code examples.
"About a year ago we started to think about the hundreds of thousands of APIs that will be developed and how developers end up needing to write 5 code libraries for each API they work on: that's never going to scale," Willmott told ProgrammableWeb.
For now, the concern over a massive duplication of effort in API coding is mostly amongst industry chiefs like Willmott and Lane, who are working with businesses, government and entrepreneurial developers to create and deploy APIs. But already - developer skills shortages aside - Willmott sees the potential of API Commons to alleviate some API provider pain points:
"For now every one is focused on developing their own API, but there are signs of this affecting some API providers already. First of all in the area of API design: everyone wants to know the best way to create an API, so having copyright-free resources that could help show the patterns behind good API design would make a difference," Willmott said.
"Second, if there was shared source code across common APIs, it would be easier for developers to get on board and start creating services and integrations using your specific API."
Speeding up the open data agenda for government and industry
The API Commons project hopes to provide a central library to help developers speed up their work and reduce the redundancy built-in to the current API economic model. "A good recent example is with New York's food safety inspection ratings data. They are collaborating with San Francisco to share API approaches to how food safety data is stored and defined. It doesn't make sense for every city to be developing their own code for how to access food safety data. With API Commons, a city can share the data model and API descriptions so that other developers in other cities can use it."
Willmott believes at first, the API Commons has a higher potential opportunity for adoption amongst government open data providers and consumers, but the flow on impact for businesses would be huge, especially as more businesses and products require aggregating multiple APIs. "With the food safety example, you could see how companies like Yelp would want to incorporate that data, so for their developers being able to access a common set of protocols, that would help scale and release products faster."
The API Commons model is also expected to give benefits to developers who share and use common code. "It's a bit like if you know how to implement the Twitter API, that's a skill set that employers are looking for. So if you have been coding with a shared API description, that becomes a transferable skill when working with other API providers."
A resource for the sharing economy
The growth explosion of APIs has occurred alongside the emergence of a sharing economy in which more people and businesses are recognizing the potential value of opening up their unused assets. The sharing economy started with eBay, became a world-wide phenomenon with Airbnb, and this month has led to major acquisitions like Avis buying Zipcar. APIs are a technology at the center of the sharing economy ethos, and can be seen daily playing a role in enabling this economy to disrupt other market approaches. Yesterday's Datacenter API announcement by SOA Software that creates a software-defined data center so that enterprises can 'share' their compute, network, and storage layers more flexibly is the latest case in point.
The API Commons builds on the three main tenets of a sharing economy model, as described recently by Mike Jones, CEO of Science. Jones wrote in Forbes that the sharing economy's three key 'differentiators' are scale, access, and trust. Willmott believes the API commons reflects all three. The whole impetus for API Commons was to address the million APIs question of how to scale API development, while having a central library that enables easier access to code - without legal questions over its' reuse - to create APIs. And trust? Willmott believes that may grow more slowly:
"All the APIs that provide access to government data in transportation, weather, agency service locations... everything that connects open data to commercial end uses will probably be added to API Commons first. Bigger companies may be reluctant to share their code and probably see it as part of their competitive advantage. But it's a lot like open source: in 1990, a lot of companies said that was mad to open up but now..."
Developers can contribute their API code to API Commons by registering at the API Commons site.