The value APIs bring to the modern world is hard to quantify. They are invisible to most of us yet so integral to our lives. Without these back channels churning away in the background, the digitized world we live in would simply grind to a halt. It would set back many technological advances by at least a decade or more, with inflexible communication systems, less accessibility to real-time information, and restricted automation.
It is no exaggeration to say that APIs keep the digitized economy moving. The role APIs play is akin to oil refineries of the 20th century and the coal mines of the 19th century. Data is the fuel of the 21st century, but the data would not be usable without processing by APIs.
Given that businesses are creating and consuming record levels of data with each passing year, this data needs to be organized and processed before being put to use in devices and platforms—APIs strip out the irrelevant details, leaving in the information required to complete the process. In doing so, APIs prevent systems from being overwhelmed and failing.
A world without APIs would see the things we take for granted disappearing, everyday processes that happen without us even thinking about it. Here’s just a selection:
Smartphones (and Social Media)
At least as we know them. For many of us, the morning routine of checking the phone for instant messages, weather forecasts, and news apps is something that just happens. None of this would be possible without APIs holding it all together. Smartphones would be far less interactive and become one-dimensional.
APIs enable social media sites to be accessed by millions of users at any one time and allow them to post status updates, photos, and other content. In short, smartphones and social media would be far less interactive, with no or very limited real-time information.
The impact on a generation that has come to rely on real-time information in the palm of our hands would be more than just psychological. Ride-hailing apps would cease to exist, instant communication would no longer be instant, and the flexibility smartphones provide would vanish.
YouTube and Netflix
A savior during the lockdown, Netflix has surged in popularity during the course of 2020. Imagine going through the pandemic without any video content on-demand. These platforms rely on APIs to funnel the content from multiple sources to the viewer.
Being able to catch up on The Crown or Tiger King is a luxury that many of us have taken for granted. Only a decade ago, TV entertainment was fixed to schedules, and digital recording was just coming onto the scene.
Step back another decade, and we were all experiencing the frustration of using VHS tapes to record our favorite programs. The days of waiting for our favorite shows at a set time would return. Creatives would find their opportunities to showcase their talent limited, with Youtube no longer functioning. And, there would be far fewer memes to keep us all entertained (or not).
Fintech is a term that encompasses a wide range of digitized financial activities and technology. It includes payment processing platforms, online banking, and peer-to-peer lending. There’s little doubt that fintech has revolutionized the world of finance and made it more accessible for millions of people around the world.
There’s also little doubt that much of the advancements would not happen without APIs. Banking systems and other financial institutions need to use APIs to securely process sensitive data and customer information quickly and with minimal disruption. Without this facility, customers would need to go to the bank in person to make transfers and payments. Things like contactless payments, chip and pin, or mobile banking would all be a thing of the past.
The business world would slow down, with international transactions taking days to complete rather than the minutes today. Instant communication would be limited, leading to delays in deals and contracts being signed. As a result of this slowdown, economic growth would be lower - without APIs driving the dynamism and innovation that fuels the global economy.
Online retail is now a $4.2 trillion industry globally, with a strong presence in every corner of the world. The likes of Amazon (North America and Europe), Alibaba (China), and Lazada (SE Asia) have come to dominate the retail world. And there is still room for growth, with the market set to reach over $6 trillion by 2024.
The habit of ordering has become so routine that few think about the complexities of e-commerce. From the supplier right through to the end customer, a series of processes need to happen for the chain to complete. And at each link of the chain, there’s a high chance that an API is involved.
One of the core properties of APIs is the ability to break down complex data into simplified, digestible chunks for programs to process. This enables supply chains to function under the weight of all the data being produced on a daily basis.
For example, a customer would order and input all the necessary details needed to complete this order. It would include:
- Product information
- Billing information
- Delivery address
- Type of delivery
- Customer name
This is a lot of information for one program to handle, and that’s where APIs come in. They act as filters between the user and backend systems, ensuring the individual programs only have the information it needs - reducing the risk of the e-commerce store being overwhelmed.
E-commerce would freeze and grind to a halt without that critical filter processing the data. Stakeholders in the supply chain would not be able to communicate effectively, leading to severe disruption. The delicately balanced e-commerce system would rapidly unravel.
APIs Changed the World
As digital technology evolves in front of our eyes, it can be easy to forget how quickly the world has transformed in the last 30 years. Many people point to the internet as the big driver behind our increasingly interconnected, synergized communities and economies.
However, APIs have played a vital role in enabling the internet to have an impact. They are critical in data processing and optimizing that data for programs to complete their designated tasks. APIs are the unsung heroes of the 21st century.
Without them, there would be no digital economy.