Think of yourself as an application. You have a unique database of information and skills. The language that other applications use to communicate with you would be your API.
The basic concept of APIs is quite simple to understand. An application programming interface (API) is what enables applications to communicate with each other. In essence, what's happening in the world of software is equivalent to humans being able to exchange information and skills. This we can do pretty well. But teaching someone a skill takes years, whereas accessing a powerful platform or a vast database through a web API takes seconds.
APIs: beginnings and the present-day meaning
APIs represent an underlying principle of nearly all modern software, and as such have been around at least since the launch of the very first operating systems. It is APIs that enable software applications to communicate:
“You often have to rely on others to perform functions that you may not be able or permitted to do by yourself, such as opening a bank safety deposit box. Similarly, virtually all software has to request other software to do some things for it. To accomplish this, the asking program uses a set of standardized requests, called Application Programming Interfaces [...] Almost every application depends on the APIs of the underlying operating system to perform such basic functions as accessing the file system (Computerworld, 2000).”
In fact, even the mere copying of text between applications has been possible thanks to operating system APIs!
“In essence, what's happening in the world of software is equivalent to humans being able to exchange information and skills.”
But back in the early days, until the late 90s, applications and hence APIs were still limited to the data and computational power of the computer they were installed on. It was not until 2000 that Salesforce introduced the idea of sharing data through APIs online. The company combined a web application for enterprises with an API. This meant that there was no more hassle of sharing data between business applications: all that was needed to access it was a web browser and internet access. With this, Salesforce became the first mover of web APIs in the world, and these days when people talk about APIs what they mean are web APIs.
The web API economy, however, gained its first major momentum only around 2003-2006. You may remember that this was when the new social media platforms emerged, and with them publishing of user-generated content and sharing of web links, photos and other media—all of which has been enabled via (unsurprisingly!) web APIs.
“Salesforce became the first mover of web APIs in the world, and these days when people talk about APIs what they mean are web APIs.”
In the battle for social media dominance, Facebook’s later decision to open the API and Developer Platform to the public is probably one of the reasons why it has moved past its competitors. With its open API strategy the company has enticed businesses and developers to build on top of the platform and hence brought more value to users. This example shows the kind of leverage that web APIs have given to Facebook—network effects and hence market dominance.
With Facebook’s success, web APIs have received more press coverage and the API economy has been growing ever since. There are now over 16,000 web APIs available online, a number that continues to grow, and by now virtually all major industries, including healthcare, have benefited from the availability of 3rd party APIs.
Examples of API-first strategy
We all know Google Maps, right? But we are probably not all aware that Google Maps is given the major credit for the growth of publicly available APIs. Google’s crowd-sourced geo-location data have been made readily available to software developers via the Google Maps API. To date there have been a high number of implementations of the Google Maps API, which has led to the creation of a plethora of new products and services. In healthcare, for example, the doctor/clinic search websites you have come across online are likely to have used the Google Maps API.
But the benefits APIs can bring to the healthcare sector go way beyond this simple use case. With close to 20 APIs in areas such as eligibility, claims and healthcare pricing, PokitDok is probably the most prominent example of a healthcare company with an API-first approach. In contrast, other companies typically offer a single API and touch upon other areas of healthcare experience, i.e., medical data structuring (Lexigram), secure healthcare messaging (TigerText), pre-diagnosis/patient triage (Infermedica) or interoperability (Redox).
Which APIs might be worth your attention? More on that in the next piece. Stay tuned and thanks for reading! :)
- Art, A. 2016. Tracking the Growth of the API Economy. Nordic APIs.
- Creative Bloq. 2015. 15 APIs developers need to know.
- Glickenhouse, A. 2016. API Use Cases for Every (?) Industry.
- IBM API Connect.
- Lane, History of APIs. API Evangelist.
- Orenstein, D. 2000. Application Programming Interface.
- Computerworld. Appliation Programming Interface.