Welcome to the world of API-first vendors

The latest development to happen with the cloud is what is called API-first or API-based SaaS companies. What this means in layman’s terms is a service that set up to just connect something with something else using well-documented interfaces. It is hard enough to understand what a cloud-based vendor is selling, but generally there is some physical comparison: a disk drive (Dropbox), an email server (Gmail), a word processor (Office 365) or whatnot. But an API-first vendor is almost like selling a package of air. To give you a better idea, here are some examples of these API-first companies:

  • Contentful, which offers an API-based content management system
  • Chartmogul, which has an API for web-based charts
  • Stripe.com’s Atlas has an API-based Internet payments system
  • 18F, a division of the US Government’s General Services Administration, has developed a series of digital services and APIs so that others can access various federally-based data sources
  • Tray.io, who is building various connectors to different web services using a drag-and-drop drawing canvas
  • Bitwage, which offers banking APIs so companies can pay their employees in Bitcoin. (They have been a “traditional” SaaS vendor, adding this API layer to their existing offerings.)

This last example brings up an important point. The truest API-first companies are those that started out with putting together a great API, without regard for an eventual or legacy product or SaaS offering.

These API-first companies are another degree removed from any physical reality, but it is a cool idea nonetheless. Patricio Robles at the Programmable Web was the first that I found to write about this a few years ago here.  But they have begun to become more common, and add to what you could call meta-API vendors, such as Mashery and Apigee, both of whom offer API management functions and analytics for API-first companies and developers. And there are API marketplaces that have sprung up over the years, including ones from Microsoft Azure, Infochimps and others. These latter places will sell access to particular data feeds that you can incorporate into your own apps.

API-first companies all share several common elements:

  • They have no user interface. The idea is for their customers to build their own UI and differentiate based on this value-add.
  • You interact with their product or service via something web-based.
  • The best API-first companies take the effort to show developers how to become productive within minutes of first use. More on that in a moment.
  • Their inherent value is based on their API set. Once you understand this, it is easier to see what they are offering.
  • On the other hand, there is less to visually demonstrate about the product, so it can be difficult to explain to potential customers. And the sales cycle is longer, since a company has to convince both the resident nerd and management staff about the worthiness of the product.
  • Pricing is typically usage-based, such as the number of requests to their APIs.

Back in the day (say five years ago), when you built some whizzy consumer tech company, you built the whizzy thing first and worried about the APIs later when you had gobs of data that other folks wanted to get access to. Witness Foursquare, which was a darling for a brief moment of time, but now they want to leverage all their data via their API to track commuting routes or popular nightspots or other things in their vast database. But what is happening more and more, as Robles says, is “APIs are designed, implemented and documented before the application that will consume them even exists.”

I first came across one of these with Twilio, which plans to go public this year. That is an incredible statement in and of itself, since imagine explaining what an API-first strategy to your average VC: it could easily be a plot point on “Silicon Valley” (the TV show). Twilio now runs major infrastructure for Coca Cola, Uber and EMC, among others. Their idea is to put an API in front of the switched phone network, so your programs could have access to making calls.

About that part about being productive out of the gate. This is a key aspect of this class of products. As I said, the idea is that you want your APIs to connect something to something else. The more integrations of various services you supply, the easier it will be for developers to build these bridges between their program and an existing SaaS product. This is what Contentful did: they have a variety of integrations with existing content management products, such as WordPress and Joomla, so you can import your existing blog posts and images and make use of them within minutes of signing up for their platform. This means an API-first company has to invest time in a solid knowledge base, lots of programming samples, and installation guides to make sure their potential developer customers can figure out how to use their APIs.

Chartmogul had a post here about how few apps will be built completely from scratch in the future. Companies will be able to launch faster, add new functionality easier, evaluate their costs more predictably, and scale more reliability.

Want to join in? There is now an entire website, naturally, to help you get started. Welcome to this brave new world!

Box turns the API world inside-out

You might not have seen the news last week from Box, the online storage service. There are two items. First is about Box’s new developer edition, announced at its annual conference. What is significant is that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a software developer has made it easier to embed its app inside other apps. Let’s see what they did and why it is important.

Many software vendors have spent time developing application programming interfaces or APIs that make it easier for third parties to have access to their apps or data that they collect. These days it is hard to find a vendor that doesn’t offer an API, and Box has done a terrific job with its own APIs to be sure. They have created a developer community of tens of thousands of people who write programs using them.

These programs make it easy to fax a document from within Box via an Internet faxing service, add digital signatures inside a document, make small changes to a document, and so forth. The idea is to manipulate a document that is inside the Box cloud storage system, so that their cloud can become more valuable than the dozens or hundreds of other cloud-based storage providers that are available. Without access to its APIs, a third party has to first move the document out of Box, make these changes, and then move it back to its repository. That takes time and uses computer resources.

But the developer edition turns this notion on its head, or should I say goes inside the Box. What they are trying to do now is allow apps to use a set of Box features, but doing so inside your own app. Instead of accessing APIs so you can manipulate particular documents, you can make use of Box’s security routines, or storage routines, or other basic functionality, so that you don’t need to invent this functionality from scratch for your own particular app. What are some of the features that are offered? According to the announcement, these include: “full text search, content encryption, advanced permissions, secure collaboration, and compliance.” That is a lot of stuff that an independent software developer doesn’t have mess with, which means that new apps could be written more quickly.

On top of the developer edition, Box also announced its own Javascript libraries that anyone can use to get started on coding some of these features, called T3. They had posted a few snippets of code on this website showing you how you can construct a Todo list. While JS frameworks are numerous, this one might be interesting, particularly in light of the developer announcement.

Certainly, online storage is undergoing its own evolutionary moment. Google is now charging a penny a GB per month for near-line storage, promising to retrieve your files in seconds. Of course, they and other cloud providers are (so far) just a repository, and that is the line in the cloud that Box is trying to draw with these announcements.

If it all works out, we’ll see Box become the center of a new universe of apps that can take collaboration to the next level, because the folks at Box have already built a collaboration environment that they use for their own customers. It is gutsy, because a Box-like competitor could make use of these features and out-Box Box (which is one reason that Box will control who has access to its tools for now).

It could backfire: developers are a funny bunch, and many of them like reusing someone else’s code but maybe not to the level that Box requires. It certainly is a different model, and one that will take some getting used to. But the proof is in the pudding, and we’ll see in the coming months if anyone’s code turns out to be noteworthy.

The cashless customer is now king

I wanted to bring in my winter coat to the cleaners (maybe optimistically a week or so too soon) and in cleaning out the various pockets I came across some cash and a receipt dated last December. I thought about how long it has been since I have actually used cash.

What a difference from my dad’s world. My dad dealt with millions of dollars every day as a comptroller and always carried a wad of cash worthy of a mafia don. I still have his money clip somewhere. I put the few bills on my desk as a reminder and then thought about how the world has changed. Paying in cash is certainly becoming less common.

Most of my customers still pay me with paper or electronic checks, a few go through Paypal and every once in a while I get asked to accept credit cards. Now there are so many options for accepting Internet payments and two good ones that you might not know about. One is Simplify.com, which is part of MasterCard and has done a lot of work in developing their payment gateway. The other is Stripe.com. Both charge a bit less than 3% per transaction but have no other recurring fees. That is a lot less compared to just a few years ago, when you had to pay monthly processing and other annoying fees to have a merchant account. Stripe even accepts non-dollar currencies, including Bitcoins, and converts them into dollars for you.

aaa2Both Stripe and Simplify offer a variety of APIs, tools, code samples, and connectors to various payment-related apps. I like the way Simplify arranges its code samples, as you can see in this screenshot.

Stripe has more third-party plug-ins than Simplify, including more than a dozen just for WordPress. Both offer documentation on webhooks, which are URLs that can interact with short pieces of code for particular event notifications, although I think Stripe has better documentation. Both also support OAuth for consolidated signons to other SaaS apps without having to store your credentials. Finally, both can operate in either a testing or sandbox mode so you can try various things out, and then go live with actually processing real transactions.

We have come a long way with online payments to be sure. Both services allow you to build in payment processing to your website in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. I think my dad would be just as amazed as I am.

Everyone is in the software business

Everyone is in the software business You may not know it, but you are in the software business, no matter what your actual business may appear to be. It doesn’t matter what you produce, whether you are a “bricks and mortar” retailer or a “guys in trucks” distributor, software is where you are going to end up.

virgin-america-logo-1Why is everyone in the software business? Simply because software is become the lifeblood of so many decisions on what a business makes, how it is sold, and how customers are kept happy. All the interesting business operations are happening inside your company’s software. Software is where you can find out if your customers are going elsewhere, if your profits are coming from some new markets, and if your employees are helping or hurting your overall reputation.

As an example, the airline Virgin America has billions of dollars invested in planes and the people that fly them, but their brand lives and thrives based on their mobile and web experience. That experience is all because of the airline’s booking software, and understanding what is happening with that software will make the difference between success and failure for the airline.

Take as another example a national food service distributor. Their business is getting food into trucks, and then getting those trucks to restaurants and other institutional caterers and retail kitchens. The company has had an ecommerce business for the past decade, and a pretty significant one at that. But lately their customers have been shifting their emphasis from calling their sales representatives with the weekly orders and wanting to do more online. The distributor needed to scale up their online business, and also be more data-driven. Rather than letting their truck drivers or regional offices make decisions about distribution, they wanted a single view of their business, and use the changes in their orders and other data to fine-tune their deliveries. This food distributor is now firmly into the software business.

What is driving everyone to software? Several things.

  • The cloud. The days where you had to build your own servers and data centers are over. Post Holdings is probably the largest cloud-only company, and their revenues are in the billions.
  • Everyone wants an online storefront. Just like the food distributor, even the most basic industries are finding out there is value is selling their stuff online.
  • Big Data is getting more familiar. You can now find Hadoop clusters in many traditional Fortune 500 companies. The IT staffers at the giant retailer Sears eventually spun off a side business in helping others get started with Big Data.
  •  Customer experience is king. One way that businesses can differentiate themselves is by paying attention to their customers. This isn’t anything new: Nordstrom’s department stores have been doing this for decades. What is new is a range of software tools to help figure this stuff out.

I will have more to say about this topic, right now I am working on a white paper for a client that will dive into this deeper. Check back here in the fall when I can post a link to it.

New Relic: 10 Things Non-Developers Love To Say To Developers

Do you sometimes have difficulty talking to your non-technical clients, coworkers, and bosses? Do they continually say things to you that just don’t make any sense? Do they ask for the completely impossible as if they’re ordering a cup of coffee? Do they demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of what they’re talking about?

If you answered, yes, to any of these questions, don’t worry—you’re not alone. I have a lot more to say about this. You can read my post in New Relic’s blog here.

How to build your first geofence

Geofencing is the concept of restricting the location of your customers and potential customers by their location, so you can better target promotions and fine-tune your marketing. Over the past several years a number of new companies have been created to take advantage of it and produce smartphone applications, digital coupons, and manage your social media marketing campaigns with an eye to the neighborhood around a particular retail establishment.

“With low-cost developer’s tools becoming available, geofencing is finally coming out of the shadows, moving beyond traditional location-based applications, to form the backbone of a host of new applications and services,” say analysts at ABI Research in a report published in February. They claim it will become a $300 million business by 2017.

Solution providers can build geofences for their retail clients, but it isn’t going to be easy: there are a confusing array of app providers, methods, and tools to use. Here are a few questions to address before you start your first project.

  1. What are you trying to build? Seems obvious, but first settle on the actual end goal of your geofencing project. Does your retailer want loyalty rewards, a half-price mobile coupon, the ability to track social media mentions by store, individualized SMS messages, or what? Do you want something that is installed on an enduser’s phone, or that works with an existing payment or social media apps?

“To really be effective, the business needs to leverage more understanding than just the patch of Earth the customer currently occupies, says Corey Gault, Director of Communications of Portland, Oregon-based Urban Airship. “If I know you are a fan of wines or certain seafoods, I could make that message much more compelling by informing you of new fresh inventory. That turns an annoying interruption into a welcome invitation to engage with my business because it considers your preferences.”

Each project is different, other than using geofencing to focus on a particular local area.

Once you have a notion of what you are trying to build, look for particular technology providers in that area. You can start by looking through the long list of vendors that came to last year’s Local Advertising Conference here. Don’t be surprised if most of these are vendors that are unknown to you: that is the nature of this business.

Another way to come at the core technology providers is to first look at the broad category – social media management, coupon creation, local messaging, social check-in – and then see how many of them actually support any kind of geo-location features. This can quickly narrow the field of potential providers.

  1. What are Google, Apple, and Facebook doing in geofencing? While none of these three are VAR-friendly, it pays to at least understand how these major consumer tech companies are approaching the concept. All have announced various geolocation initiatives over the past two years, such as Apple’s Passbook, Facebook Places or Google Maps.
  1. Does your technology provider have any experience in your particular retail sector? Chances are the answer is going to be no, as geofencing is still pretty new. But don’t let that stop you. Most providers are just getting pilot programs off the ground, and many haven’t really gotten very far in working in retailing yet. For example, we asked several of the leading geofencing providers if they had any restaurant chain clients: none as yet did. Prepare to break some ground and be patient as you educate them on your needs.
  1. Who are the current partners for your technology provider? Again, many of them don’t have well-developed VAR programs, if at all, so again you are going to be doing some evangelizing here as well. Except for the larger vendors, many don’t have well documented APIs for their tools, or have software that only works on iPhones, or don’t have VAR contracts yet. Most of the vendor’s websites that we examined don’t even have complete contact information, other than an information request form.

As you can see, this is still very much an emerging market, despite all the hoopla over Foursquare and Loopt several years ago. But it clearly is the wave of the future.

Codeless Ajax Development with Alpha Five

Alpha Five is a powerful database and Web applications server and development environment that has been around for many years and continues to get more powerful but not at the expense of ease of use.

We tested Alpha 5 v10 on a Windows XP running SP2 in February 2010.

There are numerous tutorials, along with documentation, copious code examples and videos:

  • http://docs.google.com/View?id=d52ghw8_92f9r2m4dx
  • http://www.ajaxvideotutorials.com/videos/help/01intro/
  • http://65.75.250.238/webApplicationDemoV10/default/index.a5w

Alpha Five v10
http://alphasoftware.com/products/v10/
70 Blanchard Road,
Burlington, MA 01803
781.229.4500

Prices: Developer $349
Application Server $599, both for $799
Unlimited Runtime licenses $599
Windows XP or later required with at least IE v7 or Firefox 3.0

Building better workflows using Altiris Workflow Solution from Symantec

Symantec’s Altiris Workflow Solution v 6.0 is a series of products that were acquired from LogicBase called TLogic. Used together, they can help you automate virtually any IT process or workflow and imbed business logic into the processes too. The product can be useful for something that requires repetitive human interaction, such as designed an automated system for gambler’s comp packages at a casino to keeping track of cleaned rooms at a hospital. Almost any type of process or Workflow can be automated with Workflow Solution.

We tested the product in August 2008 on a prebuilt virtual machine that was supplied by Symantec.

AltirisSalesInfo@symantec.com, 888-252-5551
http://www.symantec.com

Requirements: Windows Server 2003 or later. Symantec’s Altiris Notification Server and several other Altiris SDK and developer tools (free)

Price: $25,000 for server and designer, additional designer licenses are $4,000 each
Category: Workflow management
Pros: Sophisticated models can be built with little programming expertise
Cons: There are a lot of moving parts to assemble before you can begin working

Building Java apps quickly with Servoy Developer

Servoy Developer is a Java enterprise rapid applications development environment. I have always thought of Java as write once and debug everywhere, but the Servoy tools are changing that with the ability to develop a single code base that can be deployed across Windows, Mac, Linux, and run in a wide variety of browsers too.

Next, download the Servoy .JAR package or use the EXE if you are running Vista. One nice thing is this is free and a fully functioning version with up to five licensed clients, what they call their community edition. It includes the application server, support for Eclipse. and a lightweight Web server too.

Servoy Developer v. 4.0

Pricing details: $895 plus $349 per concurrent client
Product category: Java app development enviroment
Servoy USA, 299 W. Hillcrest Drive Suite 115, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
(805) 624-4959, http://www.servoy.com

Summary: Servoy has a lot to offer Java developers and a nice way to deploy multiuser Web 2.0 applications from a single code base.
Pros:
• All open source tools and methods here.
• A very rich visual programming environment that can quickly build apps.
Cons: There is a lot to get used to and the user interface is a bit hard to navigate.
General 4.0 Resources – Flash Movies, PDF Files, Reviewer Guide
http://www.servoy.com/generic.jsp?mt=396&taxonomy_id=790