Personal Finance Interview with Wendell Santos on the Internet of Things

When asked why regular Joes and Janes should be interested in API's, Wendell Santos of ProgrammableWeb cited everything from former vice president Dick Cheney's pacemaker to baby monitors to electric cars; all modern devices that contain APIs, Application Programming Interface.

"In the near future, billions of non-computing devices will be connected to the Internet; everything from refrigerators to smoke detectors to the buttons on your shirt. It will be an Internet of Things," says Santos. "And once they're connected, they'll be programmable through these APIs."

APIs make all of our lives easier, allowing us to turn on the lights in our house when we're on vacation or close the garage door from the office. But they're also vulnerable to hackers; Cheney recently told "60 Minutes" that he'd had doctors disable the wireless function on his pacemaker out of fear that someone could hack the device and assassinate him.

While these programs might for great plotlines on cable dramas, they have way more value in our day-to-day lives, enabling software developers to create solutions for just about every web-related problem we could think of.

Here Wendell offers a little primer on APIs and why everyone from moms to business owners should be interested in them:

Tell us about yourself ... what's your professional background?

I'm based out of Seattle and act as the editor of ProgrammableWeb. My educational background is as an Electrical Engineer although I bounced around a number of odd jobs until going back to get an advanced degree in Information Management. It was there that I first learned of APIs and ProgrammableWeb. After graduating, I worked briefly for a web developer, assisting her with various project management duties all the while keeping in touch with ProgrammableWeb's founder John Musser. Eventually, I joined the team and have been here ever since. That was in 2009 and in that time I've researched and profiled APIs for our directory, written posts for the blog, handled operations and really have gotten this front row seat to watch the growth of what some have called the API Economy.

What is ProgrammableWeb? Who uses your site?

ProgrammableWeb aims to be the most authoritative source on all things API related. We provider readers with the latest news, trends, information and opinions on the Web as a Platform. We maintain the leading directory with over 10,000 APIs, act as a reference with listings of code libraries, tutorials, product reviews and more. As the Internet grows and the world becomes more connected, we'll grow along with it providing coverage of all things that make up the programmable web.

For the non-tech-geeks like myself, tell me how I might find interesting and/or useful?

When the Web first came out 1993, it was truly an enabling technology. Back in '93, it started with only a few very simple websites and look what it has blossomed into since then. APIs, the central focus of ProgrammableWeb, are similarly enabling, and similarly in a nascent phase, poised for explosive growth. Back then a lot of people might not have realized that soon enough, they'd have interest in the web. They go to websites with relatively little regard for all of the technology that makes such activity possible. Business people with little or no tech savvy know when it's time to start a website to enable their business or to set up a Twitter or Facebook account. The same is true of APIs and ProgrammableWeb is the world's most authoritative source on the matter. TechCrunch called us the official "Journal of the API Economy."

So, what will trigger interest explosive interest in APIs?

Recent news events that have made big headlines are evidence of the rising importance of APIs in our world. For example, there was the story that Dick Cheney had to take extra precautions to ensure that his pacemaker wasn't hackable. Pacemakers can be reprogrammed wirelessly. These are programmable interfaces (or APIs at work). Or, the story that cars from electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla were hackable by developers. These again APIs at work. Or, the story about the Foscom Baby Monitor where a hacker was spying on and shouting obscenities at a baby. Again, programmable interfaces at work.

In layman's terms, what are APIs?

API stands for Application Programming Interface. Whether you're using an app on your mobile device or going on the Web, the user experience you're seeing was, in part, created by a software developer. The developer had an easier time creating that user experience because of APIs. For example, if a website incorporates Google Maps into its functionality, the developer had a choice. She could have built the mapping capability herself, from scratch and essentially recreated her own version of Google Maps. This would take millions of lines of software code to develop. Or, with one or two lines of code, she could "call" an API like the one for Google Maps in a way gives her the same functionality as she would have developed herself, but for less effort. In this case, Google is providing the API and deciding what functionality is available through it.

It's not unlike the AVERAGE() function in Excel. As someone who is creating a spreadsheet, you can average a range of numbers the hard way (by individually adding them all up and then doing the necessary division). Or, you can just use the average function. In the same way that Excel contains functions that do a lot of heavy lifting, ultimately making it easy for the spreadsheet user to perform otherwise complicated tasks, APIs do the exact same thing for developers.

The one key difference is that the API is often doing some heavy lifting for something that is across the Internet. From New York, the application on your smartphone can change the temperature setting on the thermostat on your chalet in Switzerland. The person who developed that application was able to do that with one line of code that accessed an API that was made available by the manufacturer of the thermostat.

Where would the average consumer come across them in their everyday life? Why should we care about them?

APIs are everywhere today. Nearly all the apps on your phone are backed by an API. If you use Netflix or Hulu to watch TV, those are powered by APIs. We're seeing car manufacturers increasingly make their cars connected allowing not only for in-dash entertainment systems but also storing diagnostic information. Various government organizations have launched APIs as a means to open up their data and hopefully let developers find a way to give that data purpose. As the world continues to grow increasingly connected, what we'll see is that more of our everyday experiences will be in someway touched by APIs.

How do businesses use APIs?

Businesses can use APIs in any number of ways but the biggest value proposition is that APIs allow companies to drive their business in ways they never could have before. APIs expose a company's core assets such as business processes and data. So if businesses think of these assets as their product, then APIs are the channel through which that product can be distributed to their customers. In short, they allow businesses to go where their customers are and in the process they help open up new business channels and opportunities. Therefore APIs become a component of the overall business strategy, they help support the overall business goals. There are even companies such as Twilio and Stripe where the API itself is the product and where the business strategy can really be called the API strategy.

APIs can be open meaning that developers outside of the business can access the API and build on top of it. This outside developer community can be a source of innovation, uncovering uses of APIs that may not have been thought of otherwise. A far greater number of APIs though are internal meaning they are only exposed to developers within the business or their partners. Often these internal APIs allow systems using dissimilar technologies to integrate with one another, which brings benefits such as increased efficiencies.

What new APIs are you most excited about or interested in? Why?

I think I'm most interested to see what happens with the so called Internet of Things which will one day become so ubiquitous that we'll just call it the Internet. Over the next decade we're going to see upwards of 50 billion non-computing devices become connected and it will be APIs that drive this. While the APIs themselves may or may not be terribly interesting; it'll be the aggregate impact of these devices that I'm curious to watch. Think of how you interacted with the world before smartphones, now try to imagine a world where everything around you is online. This has the potential to be a change that won't fully be understood for years.

What are mashups?

Traditionally mashups were a way of taking data from multiple sources, via APIs, and presenting it in a new way. When ProgrammableWeb started, the most popular kind of mashups were mapping ones many of which made use of the Google Maps API to show interesting data on a map. So for example, you could take the locations of your Facebook friends and plot them on a Google Map. A mashup though doesn't have to take data from multiple sources, it can also be from a single API and present the data uniquely. By this definition, nearly all of today's mobile apps can be thought of as mashups.

What's your favorite website, app and/or device of all time and why?

A couple that I use all the time are Evernote and Rdio. Evernote is great because when I'm on my laptop I can save articles that look interesting and come back to read them later on my phone when I have time. I also use it to keep lists. For example, if I am at a restaurant and have a great cocktail, there is zero chance I'll remember its name let alone the ingredients. Evernote lets me quickly tap in the name of the drink and a few notes about it. Rdio is great because it allows me to listen to music pretty much anywhere I'm at and it has a great interface for discovering music I wasn't aware of. It's far from perfect, but it satisfies most of my music needs.

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