You may have heard about Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), but do you know about the many ways they can help small businesses?
Although they may sound complex, APIs actually simplify the way small businesses use digital services, enabling them to streamline their operations and develop new products. Let’s take a look.
What’s an API?
In simple terms, APIs are software intermediaries that provide a way for applications to speak to each other. They are designed for app to app communication. Not human.
APIs can be used to couple different elements of your own applications together, or could be used to offer your own app to customers, or even consume apps from another company. Application publishers expose their service via an API and document exactly how other apps can interact with it. Apps you use every day like Social Media, booking a TAXI or ordering food all use APIs.
To illustrate this, we’ll use the example of an application we built for the GoogleNext conference, which uses several APIs in order to serve coffee based on the fatigue level of the user.
First, visitors take a selfie and upload to Webex Teams. The Webex Teams Bot then submits the photo to a Google cloud service - Google Vision for image analysis (via its API). Google vision then breaks down the photo into metadata, and sends this information back to an on-premises application that computes the user’s fatigue level.
The app then submits a request to If This Then That (IFTTT) – a popular web-based service that links and triggers other services using their APIs. IFTTT then asks our IoT (Internet of Things) coffee machine brew coffee with the appropriate intensity (weak, medium or strong) based on the fatigue level. The results from all users are aggregated and displayed on a dashboard on the conference floor for further comparison and analysis.
That’s half a dozen services communicating via the web, which would be almost impossible without their publicly accessible APIs.
Machine Learning-Powered Coffee Machine In Action
How can APIs help my business?
The coffee machine is just a fun example, but APIs are widespread in business as well, and you can use them to add new capabilities for your business, or even automate tedious tasks that take up valuable time in your company.
Many digital service providers – from Facebook to Google to Salesforce – provide APIs that let you integrate your systems into theirs. With a few simple lines of code, you can pipe data about your social media performance, web traffic or sales figures directly into your reporting dashboards.
But APIs are about more than just passing data around. Providers of machine learning, image recognition, automatic translation, and other "intelligent" computing services allow you to use these via an API (sometimes for a fee), giving you instant access to technologies that were beyond the reach of smaller businesses just a few years ago.
You can develop your services on top of these in a fraction of the time it would take to build your own, and a fraction of the cost it would take to license software with similar functionality. And you can start small and scale up as the service grows, meaning your outgoings increase only when your revenue does.
Hotel saves $200k a year
Many businesses have built new products and capabilities – even business models – through third-party API connections. Cisco Meraki hosts a marketplace full of such apps, including this Amazon Alexa integration and the Wifi Waiter.
With WIFI Waiter, customers at hotels and restaurants can order food on their phone simply by connecting to the venue’s WiFi. It’s a win-win, because the venue doesn’t need to develop or buy an ordering app, and customers don’t have the hassle of downloading one.
One hotel in San Francisco saved more than $200,000 a year and saw ticket sizes increase by an average of 26 per cent. You can find out more about creating apps on Meraki here.
Up-skill employees to take advantage of APIs
The emergence of APIs has driven many companies to boost the skills of their staff so they can take advantage of new opportunities. We’ve identified two key emerging roles here: the application developer and the infrastructure developer.
As the name suggests, application developers are using APIs and software development kits (SDKs) to quickly create a new breed of applications for the web, mobile and internet of things (IoT). Infrastructure developers use API-centric platforms like Cisco DNA Center to create previously impossible device connections and integrations. They’re also helping organisations save time and money by automating slow and manual processes.
To help organisations and their staff transition to new modes of IT, Cisco has built Devnet – an online community and real-world learning platform, which we will explore in future articles.
So, while the concept of APIs may sound complex at first, and not relevant to small businesses, they do offer many benefits and opportunities – for businesses of all sizes. APIs can simplify the way small businesses use digital services, streamline their operations, and develop innovative new products and services. How might APIs help your business grow?
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