Brief history of APIs: from e-commerce to the mobile era

Brief history of APIs: from e-commerce to the mobile era

From the beginning of the 21st century, large companies have been developing APIs so that they could become the technological key they are today. 

17 Sep. 2018

It was the start of the new millennium. While the world recovered from the fright of the dreaded Year 2000 problem and videogame lovers got ready to receive PlayStation 2 and The Sims, an element that now plays a key role in the digital universe was about to be born: APIs.

Officially, they came to be when Roy Fielding (one of the main authors of HTTP) published his dissertation on software architecture. However, even though the concept was introduced with this dissertation, the birth of APIs actually took place a few months earlier when the cloud computing company Salesforce chose the internet as the host for its service and developed this approach from an API.

After this first case, the history of APIs saw a relatively constant evolution thanks to e-commerce. After all, eBay launched its application programming interface (API) in late 2000, together with a program for a select group of developers. The goal was to boost the sector of e-commerce solutions but APIs were also bolstered. And eBay was not the sole player – in summer 2002, it was joined by Amazon.

The Amazon team placed the cherry on top of the cake when they launched Amazon Web Services. This platform allowed developers to incorporate content and characteristics into their web pages. As a consequence, third-party websites could search for and view the company's products.

While e-commerce spearheaded API development, social media soon added their own energy to this effort; in fact, only a few months after it was launched in 2004, Flickr make its platform available to developers. And this was one of the reasons for its amazing success. Yahoo acquired the social network when Flickr's REST API had turned it into the photo platform of choice of many bloggers who could easily integrate images into their websites.

Flickr was ahead of its time since it took two years (September 2006) for Facebook to open its platform to developers and its first API. It was possible to access the list of Facebook friends, photos, events and profile information. A wealth of information that most websites currently use. One month later, Twitter joined the club.

While social platforms stepped into the promising world of APIs, Google went a step farther and worked on a way of integrating its tools into third-party websites: only six months after Google Maps was launched, Google launched its API. The aim was to respond to the endless string of fake platforms that developed from information which had been hacked from Google's platform.

Given how successful its first attempt was, Amazon took its APIs to the next level. Instead of focusing solely on e-commerce, the company created a support infrastructure for developers based on REST API: first they launched Amazon S3 to store data on the cloud; and later they launched Amazon EC2, which allows developers to have virtual servers in their data centers.

Almost a decade later, smartphones confirmed the boom of APIs: with the emergence of successful apps such as Instagram, opening an interface for developers so that they can use a social network's content in their project is a must-have ingredient of success. It all started with e-commerce and social media but smartphones played a determinant role in turning APIs into the technological key they currently are.

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