What is an Application Programming Interface (API)?

Posted by Brian Hayden with Shapelog

Do you use software to run your business?

That question sounds ridiculous because of course you do. Your ERP or CRM system helps you learn about your customers and employees. Your website and mobile app are channels for interacting with users. Software saves you time, gives you the information you need to make good decisions, and helps your team impress customers. It’s the backbone of your organization.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are an efficient way to share information across these different software platforms. If you learn to use them, you’ll be consistently more innovative than your competitors because:

●      APIs make your existing apps and software systems better. So you attract and retain more customers.

●      APIs put better information at your fingertips. So you look awesome and make better decisions.

●      APIs make it cheaper to build and support apps. So you can be bolder and more creative.

This is the first of two articles on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in the fitness industry. These articles are written for dummies like me. If you want to know just enough about APIs to make wise investment decisions and hold meaningful conversations with your technical colleagues, read on. The goal of this article is to establish a mental model as a foundation for future learning.

If you want to know more about APIs you should listen to Karl Etzel’s FIT-C podcast, read O’Reilly’s “APIs: A Strategy Guide”, and explore ProgrammableWeb API Unviersity. The journey to API mastery is a mile long, and this article is just the first step.

What is an Application Programming Interface (API)?

An API is a hook that allows developers to access information in a structured way. When I have something valuable to share, I create an API so other developers can use it easily. The more interesting and unique my data is, the more developers will want to use it. Building and maintaining an API is how I make it easy for developers to use my business assets. Developers gain something new to sell to their customers, and I gain new revenue streams and distribution channels for my products.

Some APIs are public, but the vast majority are private. Developers use APIs to create internal tools to increase productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. They can also use APIs to create new apps or to make their consumer-facing apps better.

Here’s an example from O’Reilly’s “APIs: A Strategy Guide” that helped me:

AccuWeather is well known for providing weather data to the general public. They also maintain a very popular API that developers use to create their own apps. You can find AccuWeather data on their website, or through one of the many apps that are ‘powered by’ AccuWeather data. In theory, AccuWeather could have built all of those apps themselves, but in reality there’s no way that would happen. It would be too expensive and risky to undertake such an effort for one company, but by providing a unique and valuable tool to developers, AccuWeather data is now available in 37 languages and every country in the world. Consumers benefit from the creativity and risk taking of many developers creating new experiences, enabling AccuWeather to reach more people than would have been otherwise possible.

How Do APIs Impact the Fitness Industry?

Most fitness companies don’t know as much as they’d like about their customers. Fitness is a competitive space and consumer preferences are fickle. Over the last decade, many point solutions have emerged that illuminate some portion of the customer journey. Think club membership data, equipment usage, heart rate monitoring, steps, strength training performance, sleep, diet, and social networks - both inside and out of the club. Each of these is a ‘stranded’ data set that doesn’t tell a very complete story on its own. APIs are the bridges that connect the islands of data, and the companies that embrace a collaborative approach to developing new experiences will run circles around those that go it alone.

We’ll explore what that looks like more deeplyin the next article: “Why APIs are Critical to the Future of Fitness”.

If you’re a developer currently using APIs to build innovative user experiences, we’d love to hear from you, and shine a light on what you’re doing. Please comment, reach out via social media, or email me directly at brian@shapelog.com.