The busy waiters of the internet
In my transition from conceptual developer (see: scribbling notes in a spiral notebook) to actual developer (see: scribbling code in text files), I recently found myself wrangling with the all too mythical web API.
For those not in the know, the best analogy might be to imagine a lone french waiter, blessed with fragile forearms, half a menu, and a limited temper, simultaneously trying to bring you and two thousand of your friends a full course dinner in under 10 seconds.
While I came to learn later that this particular interaction was a worse case scenario, my first experience at “L’Instagram” left a lasting impression of second class citizenship. Before diving into the hurdles and limitations of web APIs however, it might be a good moment to explain the technical role played by this software gatekeeper.
A web API (application programming interface) acts as the designated interface through which interactions happen between an enterprise and the applications that use its assets. From a procedural standpoint, it is a defined list of HTTP GET/POST requests from which anyone can call and receive wrapped data, in the form of JSON or XML. To reiterate, simply, it’s a portal giving you predefined access to a company’s database.
Those looking for an interesting/entertaining infographic iterating through the various properties of APIs — click here.
Second class citizens
One of the more interesting trends emerging recently, has been the growing pattern of data-centric companies shuttering the doors of their public APIs, and putting the very businesses that catalyzed their growth, out on the street.
In May of 2015, LinkedIn will be shutting down access to some of its data, following in the footsteps of Twitter, who announced in early April that it was ending third party agreements for the resale of it’s “firehose” data - the full, unfiltered stream of tweets available from its service.
This, in turn, was preceded by Netflix’s complete shutdown of its public API in November of 2014. All growing concerns of a broader shift away from an ‘open web’ structure to a conversely fragmented one. Preaching in 2012, Dave Winer writes about the rise of the corporate API here.
In light of this increasingly disparate relationship between platform and dependents, I had the personal pleasure of developing an app heavily reliant on Instagrams API. While operating far below the 5,000 requests an hour limit, there were some obvious limitations in regards to the data we had access to and the speed at which it was being delivered.