March 20th, 2013

If They Have to Ask, You Didn’t Afford It

Question MarkMy guess is you are familiar with the phrase “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it”. Well, that’s not what I mean here. Let me show you what I’m actually getting at…

If They Have to Ask…
Try this:

  • Create a new Web API
  • Get it up and running on some server or other
  • Hand the single URL to a client dev and say: “There ya go!”

Is the API self-descriptive? Does it contain enough information in the responses to allow client devs to know what the API is for, what it is capable of and how they can make valid requests to the server and properly parse the responses?

Here are some questions for you:

  • How many assumptions do you have about your API?
  • Are these assumptions shared by client devs?
  • All clients devs?
  • Even ones who have never met you?

If your answer to any of those questions was “No” or “I’m not sure” then it’s likely that devs will need to ask you a thing or two about how to properly use your API. That’s no big deal, right?

…You Didn’t Afford It
In everyday life, if people have to ask how to use a device (television remote, toaster etc.) then you can be sure that device is “poorly afforded” – it’s a case of weak design. We all know devices (especially electronics) that come with huge manuals and complicated explanations – and we all know what a bummer it is when that happens.

In this respect, your API is the same as any other consumer device. It should be “well afforded” – developers shouldn’t have to read the technical equivalent of War & Peace before they are able to successfully use your API.

Yes, you can supply detailed instructions in prose, provide a long list of possible methods, include lots of tables etc. These resources are helpful for devs but they can be daunting to read and cumbersome to maintain.

Another approach is to include this kind of information in a machine-readable format – and one that most devs will also understand quickly. This can be achieved by providing instructions (that get automatically updated whenever your API changes) via hypermedia controls in the response. Why write a Web page of documentation to tell devs to construct a URI and use that URI to execute an HTTP GET when you can just include that (and much more) information in your API responses?

Help your client devs out. Throw ‘em a bone, here. Don’t make them read pages of documentation when you can just include simple run-time instructions as they’re needed.

In conclusion: If they have to ask, you didn’t afford it.

(Originally published on my personal blog.)

February 4th, 2013

More Mobile Access Predictions for 2013

MWC PredictionsWith February just beginning, the mobile world is gearing up for Mobile World Congress (MWC), which will be taking place in Barcelona, at the end of the month. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what new products and features will be announced at the show. From the ongoing trends (some of which Mike Amundsen recently discussed), I’d expect to see a number of announcements of IoT products.

The good old measure of progress, mobile subscriber penetration, doesn’t cut it anymore. Now, the real measure is how many other connected devices a subscriber uses – iPads, Smart TVs and even fridges (who wouldn’t want a Galaxy Kitchen or an iPad Mini?) This is just the start of a revolution in connectivity, which will make it easier than ever to consume information and equally easy to emit a lot of information, often through social networks.

But there is another aspect to this – not only will you be able to post your own information but there will be all kinds of devices that can “sense” information about you. I expect to see a lot of this at MWC – sensors and cameras scattered around the floor, mapping passers-by to Facebook profiles and other personal information. Obviously, the capturing and cross pollination of this information raises all sorts of privacy issues.

It will also have a number of significant ramifications for mobile developers. First, there will be a new wealth of information available in the form of Web service APIs, as most of the data will be stored in cloud. The sheer scale of this new information-rich world will require apps to leverage cloud processing capabilities in order to be truly effective. This will create opportunities for enterprises to rethink their mobile architectures.

Second, mobile developers will need to use standard protocols for authentication and authorization. OAuth and OpenID Connect are key standards for protecting resources and allowing app users to authorize apps to leverage their information. Will these standards address all the privacy issues mentioned above? Probably not but they will make it a good deal easier for app developers to comply with privacy laws and regulations.

Third, the most successful app developers will be those that are able to provide a seamless user experience (UX) across multiple devices. This is because the end user of the near future will naturally expect all apps to know about other sessions that user had with an app across all of his or her many smart devices. Devs will therefore want to migrate sessions across devices, to bolster the UX.

If you’re going to MWC, come and say hello to the Layer 7 team. We will be located in the App Planet area Hall: 8.1 Booth: A47. I hope to see you there!

January 17th, 2013

Layer 7 Hackathons: 2012 Round-Up & 2013 Plans

Las Vegas HackathonTo follow-up on my previous post about Layer 7’s hackathon activities, I wanted to provide an update on more events we’ve been involved with, as well as mentioning some of the exciting things we have planned for 2013.

Las Vegas Mobile App Hackathon (November 16-17)
The local developer community is thriving in Sin City, which may be a surprise to many. I was very impressed with the talent of the developers in Vegas, most of whom were writing native Objective C or Java for their iOS and Android apps. Also, the local PhoneGap user group manager was onsite, providing support for Adobe’s app development framework. The apps produced were quite polished and impressive. Several included API integrations while others came with plans for future Web integration of APIs, to add context and information.

Miami Mobile App Hackathon (December 14-15)
This hackathon brought an impressive group of sponsors together including AT&T, Microsoft Azure, Blackberry Dev, GitHub and – of course – Layer 7. With over 200 signups and some highly technical evangelists sent by the sponsors, I was excited to see what kinds of apps would be produced. The developers mashed together numerous Web services using native code or PhoneGap. It was great to see the local developer community come together, with numerous local start-up incubator leaders onsite scouting for new talent and investment opportunities.

For 2013, Layer 7 will once again be joining the AT&T Hackathon team for several events. Many organizations with APIs powered by Layer 7 will be promoting their APIs and providing prizes at these events. Stay tuned – we’ll be helping evangelize a lot of great APIs in 2013!

Find out more about upcoming Layer 7 Hackathons

January 10th, 2013

Measuring Hackathon ROI for APIs

Hackathon ROII often get asked whether hackathons actually provide API publishers with any true, measurable return on investment (ROI). The simple answer is “yes” – and the positive benefits of hackathons are now undeniable.  However, the benefits can be a little hard to quantify, making ROI tricky to measure objectively.

For example, hackathons provide a fantastic way to grow developer awareness of your API as a brand in and of itself, separate from your core business. When the developers who attend your hackathon go back to their day jobs on Monday, they have added your API to their programming tool belts and will use it, when appropriate, in upcoming projects. Additionally, hackathons will attract the attention of thought leaders and influencers who will mention your API on blogs and forums, spreading the word further. These benefits can deliver considerable value but they can also be difficult to quickly quantify.

Nevertheless, API evangelists will be held accountable for demonstrating the real-world value of their hackathons. One way to do this is to show how hackathons enable your company to conduct developer user experience (DevUX) research at a minimal cost. Gathering feedback and data from hackathons provides the most cost-effective way to optimize the quality of your API as a product by answering questions like:

  • How user-friendly is my registration process?
  • Do my APIs ever return incorrect or unexpected results?
  • What new features should I add to future versions of my API?
  • Is the skill level of my API appropriate for long-tail app developers?
  • What kind of tutorials and other documentation will my developers need?
  • Which programming languages are my developers using to implement my APIs?
  • How useful is my API and what are the most common/innovative use cases for it?

The data and feedback you gather will also help you to further demonstrate ROI by providing the answers to questions such as:

  • How many developers registered and how many actually attended?
  • Did the hackathon appeal to the types of developer we want to attract?
  • Did any valuable or innovative apps get prototyped?

Hackathons offer a fantastic way to build excitement around your API and optimize the quality of your interface. If you still have any doubts, join us for a hackathon (and participate!) to see how other API platforms are doing it.

December 18th, 2012

New Mobile eBooks

Layer 7 eBooksAs a Partner Architect at Layer 7, I’m lucky enough to get to interact with some of the best and brightest in the industry. These include software vendors, systems integrators, analysts and thought leaders. When you add in our own experts, we have access to a veritable “who’s who” of the API world.

Recently, we began a series of free eBooks that will distill our communal knowledge into specific, targeted recommendations for dealing with a variety of challenges around APIs – from interface design, to security, to developer engagement. Today, I’m pleased to announce the first two of these, which deal with API exposure for internal mobility projects and for externally-facing open APIs.

First, we have Enterprise on the Go: 5 Essentials for BYOD & Mobile Enablement. This eBook focuses on the challenge of securely exposing internal applications and information assets to mobile employees, either on their own devices (BYOD) or as part of a larger mobility initiative. These five key points for a successful deployment are presented in an easy-to-consume synopsis and then backed up by white papers, webinars and customer case studies. Of particular interest to our enterprise customers are the sections on repurposing existing services and using middleware to optimize for mobile use cases.

Next, we have 5 Ways to Get Top Mobile App Developer Talent for your Open APIs. While not all enterprises have chosen to expose their APIs externally, those that have are faced with the challenge of acquiring a talented community of developers that will build useful mobile apps for the consumer marketplace. However, enterprises can’t simply assume “build it and they will come.” Getting devs onboard requires investment in documentation, branding and community development. This eBook discusses some of the best methods for onboarding and rewarding those developers who provide the most value.

Whether focused on internal or external developers, these eBooks are valuable resources for anyone looking to expose APIs for mobile access to enterprise assets. We welcome your feedback on this format and look forward to continuing the series.