Technology

2016: The API's Breakthrough Year?

By / Feb 9, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Application programming interfaces, or APIs, have long been an important tool for programmers to tie into outside applications, but even companies outside of the programming world, like Visa, are learning to love them. Could APIs potentially be a revenue path for associations down the road?

Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Visa or MasterCard: At different points in their history, the credit card processing giants were organized as associations.

Part of the reason for that was their roots as projects of the banking industry. MasterCard started life as the Interbank Card Association, a project of a variety of small banks. Visa started as a pet project of Bank of America that became a massive company of its own; the company’s name, by the way, stands for Visa International Service Association (an acronym that, conveniently, stands for VISA).

These days, both of these payment-processing giants are among the largest companies in the world, making billions of dollars each year. They most definitely wouldn’t be mistaken for nonprofit trade groups now. But that doesn’t mean they don’t do things that associations can learn from.

One of those things came along last week, when Visa decided to make available a series of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the public to hack on, an offering it’s calling Visa Developer.

“Visa Developer was created in collaboration with our clients and partners. Developers at Visa, banks, retailers, and technology companies tested our easy-to-sign-on portal, tools, and documentation,” the company explained in an introductory blog post. “The result, we believe, will accelerate the creation of innovative payment solutions and the migration to digital commerce.”

Granted, this isn’t exactly a brand-new idea in the payments space—PayPal has had an API for years, and startups like Stripe and Braintree (the latter of which was acquired by PayPal) have turned their payment APIs into a graceful art form.

But what Visa lacks in originality it makes up for in sheer breadth—the company is offering hackable ways to plug into Visa’s technology, no matter if you’re working on a web interface or a physical card scanner—150 different services in all. Heck, Visa’s offering even lets companies get current foreign exchange rates directly from the horse’s mouth.

And by putting this information out into the public sphere—complete with forthcoming developer forums, so programmers can help one another out—there’s a lot of room for someone to build the next Square, or another form of electronic payment technology.

And, of course, there’s a direct benefit for Visa as well.

“Visa’s hoping that if it makes it easy for developers to use its services, it will choose to integrate Visa, rather than using something like Stripe or Apple Pay to make online payments, or transfer money between individuals,” Gizmodo‘s Chris Mills pointed out last week.

In other words, a company that has been traditionally been seen as a middleman (which, remember, is a good thing) is cutting out the middleman.

API: Could It Work for You?

Visa’s move to introduce its own API highlights the fact that APIs are increasingly becoming the lingua franca of the internet. They haven’t always been easy to approach, but programmers are working on ways to make them easier for the average person to take advantage of. Plug-and-play services like Zapier and IFTTT, for example, have turned software into something that can easily communicate with other software.

And these tools are improving, too. Last week, for example, Zapier added a feature called Multi-Step Zaps, which allow users to automate complex tasks by contacting multiple services at once based on a single action.

Likewise, the Internet of Things will most assuredly ride these kinds of APIs into becoming things that plug into your daily life. Amazon’s latest sleeper hit, the Echo, wouldn’t be able to take Uber reservations, for example, unless Uber had an API. Good thing it does.

And the chat service Slack is becoming famous for its bots these days, many of which work through efficient, well-thought-out APIs.

Your association should consider two questions regarding this trend:

Do your internal tools play nicely with APIs? They should. The trend toward APIs plays against the largely proprietary trend of association management software and event management software, software that tends to be all things to all people. Those vendor-based offerings do have their benefits—because they’re working on improving their offerings constantly, you’re not on the hook to follow trends. But it would certainly be nice if you could take the best parts of each piece of software you have available and make them talk to one another, allowing for a more best-of-breed approach to what you do. APIs are the secret sauce that could make that possible.

Would your association benefit from building an API? It depends. This is a good question, and it depends on a few factors. First up, what kind of data do you have—and would that data be useful in a programmatic form? If you’re the Sunlight Foundation and you have a database of everything Congress is doing at the moment, an API that’s open to the public might be a great idea. If you run an association with data that just a handful of members might need access to at any given moment, it could be a lot of extra work. But what if you have a lot of members, as well as data that a lot of those members need—like, say, an academic journal that goes back 100 years, or a detailed parts database? Then an API that is more closed in nature—proprietary, available as a member benefit—could be worth looking into. You might be able to save your members a lot of frustration down the road, and you could even sell your services to members to help them best use this API for their own web apps—creating a new revenue stream.

The secret here, and something Visa appears to have figured out on its end, is that it doesn’t really matter how people get this data, or what piece of hardware or software they use—as long as they get it from you.

You lose a little control, but you might gain a lot in return.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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