August 23, 2012

APIs Will Power More Than Your App


Less than a decade ago, we were limited to accessing the Internet via a monitor, keyboard and speakers overtaking our desks. Today, we view and engage with connected content by virtually every kind of device in our lives: our smartphones, tablets, television sets, even alarm clocks. At the heart of this ‘magic’ are the same engines that power our apps and websites of today: APIs.

APIs are not just multi-functional and reusable - they are transformative. We will certainly experience this transformation as functionality is embedded in our surroundings in a seamless, unobtrusive way. The concept of the “Internet of Things” brings common objects, wearable items, and locations to the connected world.

Let’s examine Google’s latest innovation: Project Glass. This concept gives a powerful indication of things to come. Throw out your computer, and put on your shades - you are now an empowered, web-enabled individual. Instead of a smartphone, which demands 100% of your visual attention, these glasses offer a more graceful experience. Through API-integrated data, a user is able to capture images, schedule meetings, take calls, check weather, scan barcodes, and pull up maps. But this time the user has two free hands, and eyes on the sidewalk. What an exciting new platform for developers to embrace: an uncluttered user experience that speaks to web APIs.

Google’s R&D concept is spectacular. However, there are other real-world examples today that showcase how the web is going ‘beyond the computer.’

One of my favorite examples is how a pet store in Germany used the Foursquare API to reward loyal customers (er, dogs). Upon a successful mobile check-in, a mechanical dispenser (mounted on a wall) releases a biscuit. This is a great example of how a popular web API can do much more than power an app. It’s able to refuel your dog.

What is apparent here, is that this trend doesn’t stop with bifocals and store walls – this has implications for everything. We can expect that most material things in our lives will one day be web-enabled. Perhaps, everything will have an IP Address. From a developer perspective, you are no longer building for an app or website, you are focused on building an API that can be used everywhere, and that is future-ready. What’s next: turnstiles, stop signs, subways, sneakers, refrigerators, and watches?

We can expect one thing that is common on all these platforms: they will be powered by APIs. Just as with the proliferation of consumer devices, web-enabled animate objects will grow exponentially and require the ease of device integration and real-time nature of APIs. A study conducted by Forrester Research elaborates on what our post-PC era would look like. Computing will be ubiquitous and reach new parts of our life, even including your wardrobe. (electronics-embedded clothing anyone?)

So how would this work? How could an API power a ‘thing’, rather than a website? I set out to answer this question by rolling up my sleeves and attempting my first hardware hack; what better way to see how the digital to analog interface actually looks.

Keep in mind I am no electrical engineer, and I have pretty rudimentary coding skills. Nevertheless, I have confidence, the how-to’s on the web, and various communities will help guide me. This is an ongoing project, and I aim to update you as I progress. For now, let me give you run down of what I plan to do.

The goal: build a wall-mounted brass bell that rings when someone mentions “Mashery” on Twitter. Also part of the design will be a small LCD that displays the text of the real-time tweets. In order to make this magic happen, I will be utilizing the Twitter API, a trusty Netduino microcontroller, and various motors, shields and resistors. The Netduino acts as the brain that will interact with the API, and trigger various peripherals into action.

I’ve been progressing (slowly), and have successfully wired my prototype to display text on the LCD screen. I’m aiming to power the “bell motor” in the coming weeks. After that, I can bring this ‘thing’ to life with a web API.

I know, this all seems like a Philip K. Dick story, but our inanimate objects are become smarter, and more connected. It’s hard to imagine that the same API that powers our Smartphone apps could one day transform our surroundings. I look forward to see what’s next, especially the new physical platforms on the horizon that will change the way we live.

I recommend taking 40 minutes from your day to watch Wilson Miner’s talk about how the computers will be embedded in your lifestyle, and the way interact with technology will be changing in a big way.