Chuck Freedman | Director, Vertical Insights
September 03, 2014

5 Things to Understand About Successful “Open” APIs


This guest post comes from Intel’s Chuck Freedman API Strategist and Director of Vertical Insights, always looking at the benefits of APIs from many perspectives.

Take a closer look at the recently celebrated and deservedly promising Uber Open API launch and you won’t see a free-for-all service. There’s nothing about this platform, or any successful platform for that matter, that says “Here are our APIs and do whatever with them you please.”

To launch a successful platform, the true use of Open in the API sense is to selectively expose the very same services, content or data a company uses itself. This is motivated by partner demand and a calculated understanding that the platform can ultimately offer something of value to those outside the organization.

Let’s walk through some common misconceptions I often hear regarding successful, Open API programs:

1)   Open APIs are not truly “open":

They are not truly open, rather they are well-managed APIs, guarded, controlled and managed by keys which let the platform owners determine who can access the platform and at what frequency. Think of how theme parks like Disney World “open.” Guests can’t just flock in and enjoy rides and food without first passing through ticket gates. Successful open API programs rely on similar gates to control the flow of access to their platform. 

Looking at the newly launched Uber developer page you’ll find documentation and tutorials. However, you won’t be able to properly make API calls into the platform without first registering your app and receiving an authorization key to append to all calls you’ll make going forward (and rightfully so). This is how the platform team, using proper tools, will manage access while also understanding API usage through reporting and other techniques. 

2)   Open API programs never seem to offer up the raw access to services or data they’ve often used internally:

With an approach similar to how a product is managed, good platform teams will understand how external partners and developers may need to use their API and craft polished endpoints and data. The result gives intended developers a better starting point, a refined approach to engage the platform and induces more quality integrations.

Although we can’t peek into see how platforms are consumed internally, for those of us who have worked on platforms know this: it’s easy to recognize, in the case of Uber and other successful app companies that have launched platforms, the platform services were being used and iterated internally for some time. Bottom line – it’s no accident that after years of using their own service, a platform openly launches in an elegant manner with the success of its developers in mind.

3)   Many promising Open platforms will launch with integration and app ideas ready to share:

A mark of successful platforms has been their ability to inspire and cultivate valuable apps from their newfound developer communities. A good developer portal or blog post will even challenge developers with examples and listed possibilities of what can be done.

Of course, the Uber platform opens with a list of ways the Uber API can add value to your app (Uber API). Referencing either existing partnerships or those the platform team envisions.  The list shows careful thought into the launch of the platform and invites partners and developers to expand on what’s totally possible.

4)   Some Open APIs don’t last forever:

Fresh off of its launch, Uber shows no signs of slowing down. However, as developers of previously “Open” platforms like Netflix, ESPN and Twitter would tell you, “Code-with-caution.”  

Realize a great Open platform is launched to create mutual value. For the developer, you’re getting access to features or content that may be well beyond your reach or ability to reproduce. For the platform, opening APIs is about exploration, creating value for existing or extended users and maybe the potential/intent to drive some revenue in the process. Accepting a key to an Open program is a bit of a contract and if partners and developers hold up their end of the bargain the platform will remain Open to drive innovation.

5)   Open API access usually represents a wildcard use of the platform: 

In most cases, the platform is actually being used by the company itself – for their own purposes. Often, the API is designed to give internal groups, or outside vendors, controlled access to the platform in support of scalable development of the company’s own web, mobile and desktop app integrations. After internal use, a successful platform exists to also support targeted partner use, which may be paid for or intended to bring mutual value to the company’s business partners.

Often, the “Open” aspect of the platform is a byproduct of these internal and partner use cases, making select services available to drive innovation. A good developer portal and solid documentation support easy discoverability to companies and developers. Using advanced tools, authorization keys can be auto-provisioned granting sufficient, but limited access to allow for these wildcard integrations. 

Whether fostering smaller companies to build new things, Open platforms can really succeed when apps built through open access can graduate to recognized and valuable partner integrations. 

There are many arguments made among top API strategists and evangelists that more platforms should be Open. For a platform to maintain success in making APIs available outside its organization a strong set of strategies and tools need to be in place. One of the best things a platform can do when considering an “Open” launch is to understand the possibilities of what 3rd party partners and developers can actually bring. If the platform can be beneficial to all parties, and the company is open to driving innovation beyond itself and its partners, then those API ticket gates should be “Opened”.

Follow Chuck Freedman on Twitter and read more of his posts from Intel’s Services Division blog.