API Providers Urged to Agree on an Open API Definition

In a keynote at this morning’s program of the API Strategy and Practice conference in Amsterdam, Webshell founder Mehdi Medjaoui urged API providers to “take a leap of faith” and agree on an open API definition that can be shared across the industry.

“No one has a clear definition of ‘open API’:, Medjaoui said. As an example of the current level of ambiguity and reluctance amongst API providers to define the term, Medjaoui points to Wikipedia, where there is no definition provided on the Open API wiki page.

Defining where we are going

“If we are to scale, we need to have a clear definition of open APIs,” Medjaoui said. As founder of Webshell and OAuth.io, as well as organizer of the API Days event series, he believes APIs are a way to share assets between companies, and that it is essential to create an ‘economy of functionality’, in which newer companies can build things quickly and cheaply, while established companies can make money from the assets they have already invested in. “I call it a B2B sharing economy at worldwide speed and scale,” he says.

Medjaoui points to patents, the shipping Container, and the web itself as three examples where global industry Scaling was made possible following full industry agreement, and an open sharing of core technologies. For example, with patents, countries signed up their business markets to the patent system, which meant companies that invent new products agreed to release the specifications to their created products after 20 years of having an initial monopoly over the idea. With shipping containers, the container specifications were released as open source and today are used by 95% of the shipping industry. CERN was originally encouraged to capitalize on making money from the global web infrastructure, which instead it chose to open up, creating the Internet as we know it today.

Defining APIs

Being a central figure in the API economy and industry, Medjaoui says: “'API' does not just mean the ' Application Programming Interface' that defines the Resource. It is also the interface, the data behind that, and the team behind that, and then the company behind that as well. We have terms of service, we have marketing, we have a whole product behind the API. Some people can only see the building bricks - the application programming interface - but in the business use of APIs, you see what you want to accomplish with your APIs. It is a contract between a provider and a consumer.”

First draft of a open API definition

Referencing Hemingway’s famous quote that “the first draft of anything is shit”, Medjaoui launched the nine core principles that he says are integral to a definition of an open API. The Open API manifesto is now published on Github, where anyone can collaborate with the initial definition.

The nine principles for an open API are:
1. There are new resources being added to the network: the API is providing something - data, functionalities, processes
2. Transparency: transparent access to the underlying data
3. Accessibility: easy to find, good Documentation, pricing affordability
4. Interoperability: while there is no current agreement on which standards to use, this should still be a key goal of an open API
5. Attribution, re-use and derived works policy
6. Neutrality
7. Terms of service, policy and changes: opening an API little by little is often better than releasing a public API and then clawing back rights to accessing and using the data unlocked in the initial API version
8. Reliability: API providers need to invest enough internal resources or make it open source
9. Commons: Clear copyright specification or shared API models shared in an API Commons.

Medjaoui believes that if the wider API economy all operates with a common open API definition, it will benefit all stakeholders: transforming a business’ customers into practitioners, who in turn will begin to build and bring value to what you are sharing via API.

“APIs allow for the emergence of new actors, and lighten the load of bigger companies,” Medjaoui concluded, imploring the API Strategy and Practice audience: “If we don’t try, who will?”

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self and e-commerce. He can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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