When you stand at the foot of a high-rise building and you bend your neck to admire its height, you tend to forget that most of the engineering genius actually does not go into the very top. The most important part of high-rise buildings that often gets overlooked by the general public is the foundation of the building, the invisible part underneath the surface. The taller the building, the more critical the foundation becomes as the structure needs to be able to withstand greater weight and forces.
Mega tech trends are like the world’s highest skyscrapers – an expression of ambition to grow beyond what is deemed possible and achievable today – and sometimes they might look like science fiction. Such relevant mega trends are for example AI, the metaverse, the rise of the biz technologist, green IT, and sustainability.
We like to look at the mega tech trends like we look at skyscrapers, bending our necks to get a glimpse of the exciting future they promise. And just like skyscrapers rely on a strong foundation, mega tech trends depend on powerful enabling technologies, which often sit right beneath the surface hidden from where everyone can see them. But still, the structural integrity of the mega trend depends on the flawless operation of the enabling technologies.
For many of the mega tech trends APIs are the foundational, enabling technologies and as such, they are driving the adoption of APIs.
AI and APIs
Everyone talks about ChatGPT – social media is full of it. The first knowledge workers are already integrating ChatGPT into their daily office routine, for brainstorming, summarizing long text, as a search engine replacement, for translation, or for writing emails.
ChatGPT is just a thin UI on top of an API that connects into the AI model. All the power of the AI is behind the API, in the large language model GPT3. AI is an API product. And it is monetized with a pay-per-use scheme, which means the longer the input and output text is, the more you need to pay.
In the future, we will likely have more powerful AI models, multimodal AI models (text, speech, images, …) and models that continuously learn from their interactions. These AI models will be used by companies to build AI-backed products for the general market or as in-house proprietary AI applications.
Future AI applications will differ from apps like ChatGPT in many ways. In particular, I want to highlight the potential of integrating the company’s data and functionality (accessed via APIs) with an AI model (in turn accessed via API).
Many use cases become possible if you have the company’s data and functionality available in the form of APIs, because APIs allow an AI model to interact with the data and functionality. Generating personalized emails for customers and responding to customer service requests are probably some of the easier exercises for an AI model interacting with APIs.
More advanced use cases involve creating new digital products and touch points. Being highly structured and standardized on a technological level, APIs are relatively straightforward for an AI to interact with. For a given task, the AI might even be able to dynamically find the right API to accomplish the task, at runtime learn how to call the API, and subsequently call that API in the right way.
When an AI gets involved, I am sure there will be an increased focus on data privacy, security, and safety. It is too early to say how this will play out in detail, but APIs – if managed properly – offer established mechanisms to control exactly these aspects: security, dataflow, privacy, and access. Proper API governance will become even more important.
Overall, we can say that APIs enable the AI mega trend, both in delivering the AI responses and by integrating existing data with the AI.
Metaverse and APIs
The metaverse is a virtual world where users can interact with each other and digital objects in a seemingly real way. Some people see the metaverse as the next step in the evolution of the internet, a place where people can gather, work, and play in a fully immersive digital environment.
There are many applications of APIs in the metaverse, as they can be used to represent purely virtual objects or the digital twin of a physical person or object.
Potentially, there will not only be one, but many metaverses. APIs can be used to allow for interactions across different metaverse platforms and virtual worlds. This allows users to move between different virtual worlds without having to log out or create new accounts.
APIs can also be used to integrate services into the metaverse. For example, an API can be used to integrate a virtual marketplace into a virtual world, allowing users to purchase virtual (or physical?) goods and services directly within the metaverse.
APIs will likely be used to get sensor data about the physical world into the virtual world. For example, an API can be used to allow a virtual reality headset to share data with a virtual world, such as the user’s position and movements.
Overall, APIs will be required to bridge the physical and virtual world, which will be essential for broad acceptance of the metaverse. APIs can be used to bring the physical world into the metaverse and also to make existing digital services available in the metaverse to create a rich immersive experience.
Web3’s vision is to create a more open, decentralized, and fair internet, where users have more control over their own data and can interact with each other directly. Web3 focuses on decentralized web applications (dApps) that are built on top of blockchain technology. Instead of relying on centralized servers and institutions to store and manage data, users have more control over their own data and can interact with each other directly.
In the context of Web3, APIs are used to interact with decentralized blockchain networks and smart contracts. This allows developers to build applications that can read and write data to the blockchain, as well as perform other actions, such as sending and receiving cryptocurrency. Some popular Web3 APIs include web3.js, which is used to interact with the Ethereum blockchain, and Infura, which provides a way to access the Ethereum blockchain without having to run a full node.
Rise of the Business Technologist and APIs
To realize the promised efficiency gains of business software, the software needs to be deeply integrated into the day-to-day operations of various business functions. Traditionally, IT departments were tasked with such integration activities. However, central IT departments often lack the business knowledge, and the business requirements often change too quickly, leaving them overwhelmed with this task.
More and more, business functions become self-sufficient and get technology-aware staff – the business technologists. They can perform the relevant integration work much more efficiently. While these business technologists have the right knowledge and understanding of the business requirements, they almost universally do not have the deep-tech skills to go all the way down to the databases and write scalable, reliable code that is in accordance with the technical architecture.
The challenge will be more and more in separating the work along a clean interface. This interface will be realized by APIs that are made available on an internal developer portal and in the libraries of no/low code development environments:
- On one side of the interface is the domain of the business technologists, they consume the APIs, and orchestrate them using no/low code development tools.
- On the other side is the interface is the domain of the IT departments that need to package data and functionality into easy-to-consume APIs.
While there are only 27 million developers, there are about 1 billion knowledge workers. And knowledge workers can potentially assume the role of a business technologist. It will be crucial to properly enable the large work force of business technologists, with intuitive APIs, great documentation and a great overall developer experience.
Green Software, Sustainability, and APIs
A growing global awareness of the risks of climate change drives the trend towards sustainability. Software has two functions in this trend:
(1) Software is a part of the solution.
Better sustainability data improves transparency, can be used to create incentives, and can help improve sustainability. Already today, companies need to report emissions data in yearly reports. Increasingly, the focus is not only on their own direct emissions, but also on the aggregate indirect emissions from across their supply chain.
APIs will deliver accurate emissions data, which will not only be reported periodically, but be collected and made available in real-time.
(2) Software itself needs to become greener.
More efficient hardware and software architectures can help to fight climate change. Software will be more carbon-aware and more carbon-efficient. An example are new software architectures, such as those based on serverless computing. They are often used in API and microservice implementations and can help to increase the hardware utilization by time-sharing the load of multiple tenants.
Another example are APIs, that can help in scheduling batch jobs, when clean energy is available in surplus (e.g., when there is wind and sunshine) and defer them when clean energy is scarce (“Dunkelflaute”).
At first glance, APIs are not visible in the big technology mega trends. Only when we take a closer look, we see that APIs are essential for requesting results from the AI, making the AI work with existing functionality and data, connecting the real and virtual worlds in the metaverse, create and execute smart contracts on the blockchain, create powerful no-code platforms, and build more sustainable software.
APIs enable all the above mega trends, while the API technology stays underneath the covers.
Now, will all these mega trends become as big as we imagine today? Difficult to say. But even if just one of the mega trends has a breakthrough, API adoption will grow significantly.
Overall, when looking underneath the hood of the technology megatrends, I see a lot of growth in API adoption and usage, that makes an investment in that strong foundation essential for all businesses that want to profit from the upcoming mega trends.