Talking Outside the Box: An Interview About Box's API Plans

There is a bold new version of the API, as the enterprise-focused file sharing company iterates on its Platform. In the interview below, we discuss the future of APIs with Box's Peter Rexer, the first in a series conducted by ProgrammableWeb and Hojoki (where I work), an aggregation tool for apps such as Google Drive, Dropbox and Evernote, that helps support team work.

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Peter Rexer, and I head up Product for Box's Platform team. The Platform team at Box is a little different from most companies I've seen. Our team runs as its own group, operating like a startup within a startup in that we have our own engineers, marketing, business development, customer outreach, and product management. That structure reflects our belief that the Platform is one of the differentiators, and core growth engines for Box. I, personally, am responsible for making sure we deliver both an incredibly useful collection of tools, including a server-side API, client-side API, and an Embeddable HTML5 widget, and that we work with key partners to make them successful. We spend a lot of time on developer outreach, working with small development shops so they can be successful.

How important is the API for your product? And why?
Box built one of the first open Enterprise APIs some seven years ago, and our API traction has been very strong to date. We believe that an open API, much like our core freemium business, is a crucial onramp for businesses that want to look at using Box in more integrated ways. What we've seen over the past 3 years is that nearly every large enterprise that uses Box also uses applications that leverage Box's API. The API is an enabling technology that magnifies the usefulness of our customers’ Box experience.

Seeing Twitter restricting their API, do you have similar plans at Box?
From a technologist and Product Manager's standpoint I understand why Twitter decided to do what they did with their API. I also think there's a huge difference between Twitter’s API and Box's API. Ours is used by hundreds of thousands of businesses. Twitter's API is mostly hit by consumers that don't help Twitter pay the bills. It is our intention to work with our developers very closely, because they are either customers or our partners. As a consumer of a lot of APIs in my past as an Integration consultant, I try to take backwards compatibility into account with most of the API updates we do so that our approach is beneficial for both our customers and developers.

We are working on the release of our V2 API. It is a huge upgrade from our V1 API. We will eventually deprecate V1, but we're making efforts to be very open about the changes with V2, and communicating these changes to our developers as clearly as possible with plenty of notice. We have a forum where developers can ask questions and search for answers. We blog regularly about the V1 and V2 API changes, and we do email outreach to our developers to get their feedback.

What are your predictions for the future of open APIs in general? Will they decline due to others following Twitter’s path or will Twitter’s approach be proved wrong?
We suspect that more enterprise API creators will realize that to build an ecosystem of supporting applications you need an open API. If you look at how enterprise software was built in the past, the big companies out there didn't have published APIs. Look at Microsoft, Oracle or SAP. They built empires with closed APIs, but those empires are on-premise, and being threatened by cloud applications. The applications that are winning, especially in the cloud, are the more open ones.  Many of those older Enterprise apps didn't have APIs that were documented. The old, closed-platform model of software development doesn’t deliver the kind of amazing innovation that is winning in the cloud. It is becoming more and more clear that if you want to innovate at the speed of the Internet, you can't do it with a closed experience, or a closed API. How do you expect to get feedback on anything if people can't get to it, and it isn't super approachable and useful?

Who do you see as innovators when it comes to pushing the possibilities with what can be achieved with APIs?
We look to some of the consumer plays for their API innovation. Stripe, Facebook, Twilio, and others are great examples of companies that have build awesome APIs, with awesome Documentation.

You recently launched OneCloud, which from an API perspective adds another layer to APIs in coming with an SDK people have to use and style guides developers have to apply. What was the reason for coming up with this solution?
OneCloud is a completely orthogonal, yet complementary strategy to our server-side API.  First off, it utilizes an on-device API, so it's a completely different beast than Box's normal API. It sits on the iOS or Android device as a part of our Box mobile application, and waits there for registered OneCloud apps to talk with it on the device.

OneCloud created features that Apple basically decided not to include in the iOS platform, including most importantly a universal file-system that other apps can use to store and retrieve content from for their users. It also offers additional features, such as all the collaboration, commenting, sharing capabilities that are inherent to the Box experience.  We created the OneCloud ecosystem in response to demand from our customers that they were having trouble getting to their content from the multiple siloed apps on their iOS devices. With OneCloud, users and IT administrators can select a hige variety of productivity apps (more than 200 are integrated with OneCloud) while knowing that all the files and content for those apps are stored in one secure place – Box. Once we built it on iOS, it became an obvious thing to also offer on Android.

Technically speaking, what’s your API related roadmap for the near future? What’s to come?
In terms of API roadmap, we have a lot to deliver. The V2 API will move from beta to general availability shortly, and then we'll be very quickly adding in some additional advanced features for admins and developers to be able to do more powerful management of accounts on Box.  We'll continue to roll out new API features into next year, and work with our developers to help them find additional opportunities to sell to our customers.  Our goal is to make building an application on top of Box a lucrative, and thus attractive pursuit for our development partners.  We will be reaching out to our development partners, as well as working with our internal Box sync and mobile teams to see which API features are the most important for their applications.  Keep an eye on our blog for announcements, as we roll out new API features nearly every week.