API: Three Letters That Change Life, the Universe and Even Detroit

Sam Ramji met AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan on a speed date — or at least the tech world equivalent of a speed date.

In 2009, some big-name venture capitalists arranged for lightning-fast meetings between AT&T’s top brass and the brains behind various Silicon Valley startups, including Ramji’s new venture: Apigee, a company that builds and operates APIs. That’s tech-world speak for the software that lets things like Facebook, Google and Twitter talk to all those applications on your iPhone.

Apigee helps companies connect themselves to as many applications as possible — and ultimately reinvent the way they do business — but Ramji wasn’t sure he could help AT&T. Or at least, that’s what he said. According to Donovan, when Ramji showed up for their speed date, he played hard-to-get. “You guys don’t move fast enough to play in our game,” he told Donovan.

Just a few years ago, that may have been true. But today, it’s not. AT&T ended up joining forces with Apigee, building APIs that let outside software developers build phone and tablet applications that do everything from sending text messages across the AT&T cellular network to charging payments straight to a user’s monthly AT&T bill. By December of last year, the telecom giant was handling 4.6 billion API calls a month on its network, and Donovan believes that number will reach 10 billion by the end of 2012. “That’s the same range,” he says, “as the top web companies.”

There was a time when APIs — or Application Programming Interfaces — were just a way of building applications for a desktop operating system like Microsoft Windows. But in the age of the internet, they have the power to plug applications into, well, almost anything. They’ve already transformed websites like Google and Facebook and Twitter into services that talk to a world of other applications, across PCs as well as mobile phones. But that’s small potatoes. They’re also breathing new life into old-world operations, including mobile carriers like AT&T and even auto makers like General Motors. In January, GM — another Apigee partner — said it would offer APIs for OnStar, the communications service it builds into cars.

“Companies are really changing the way they develop their products and deliver their products,” says Ted Shelton, a former software developer and chief strategy officer at Borland Software who is now a managing director at management consultant PwC, where he helps companies build APIs too. “We’re seeing [API efforts] in virtually every industry. We’ve done work in healthcare, in finance, manufacturing, shipping and logistics, automotive. Whether you’re a company that serves consumers or other businesses, there is an enormous need to expose both data and business processes in ways that others can make use of it.” Read More

Posted on February 7, 2012 and filed under Technology.