Why API providers need to integrate with visual app development tools

Today’s enterprise API economy has an element of irony. No matter what data and services are made available, the business value of any API is only realized when it is in the hands of the users as an app. Despite this, enterprise API providers are still failing to deliver a solution to a key (and quite obvious) part of their offering: tools for rapid, visual app development.

What good is an API that will not be consumed because a client is unable to create an app out of it, or is simply put off by the added costs of traditional app development?

For enterprise software providers and API management companies, opening up new APIs to their clients has become the norm in the midst of the enterprise mobility movement. However, nine years into this ‘revolution’, companies are still struggling to find an app creation method that works for them.

...nine years into this ‘revolution’, companies are still struggling to find an app creation method that works for them.

The enterprise API promise: reality or just hype?

The current value proposition of enterprise API providers is that if a client purchases an API, they can go mobile with it. In theory, the hype is valid around the idea that API services are necessary for great mobile apps. Through APIs, apps can securely access business data, utilize existing user accounts, use services like push notifications, interact with various systems and much more.

However, after buying and deploying their new API services, companies quickly find that actually building any of these apps will require time and a skilled development team, and that the API purchased is just a factor in a more complex equation.

When this happens, the options given to clients are always the same. If they have existing developer talent in-house (which is rare especially for SMEs) – great, but native app projects are still expensive and time-consuming. Costs can be cut by using PhoneGap type of tools to create hybrid apps, but that compromises app quality. And if the company doesn’t have the necessary developers, they need to hire new people or manage an outsourced development project.

In software development 80% of new projects fail
If companies have bad experiences or outright failures with the app development projects needed to leverage the APIs they’ve made heavy investments in, that will reflect very badly on the API service provider and might lead to lost customers. The enterprise mobility promise just doesn’t get realized, and the more the promises fall short, the more the excitement of APIs enabling mobility will vanish, leading to decreased investments and thus fewer sales opportunities.

APIs and Visual App Development Tools Make the Perfect Pair
There are two key aspects to the benefits of APIs being paired with visual app development tools that will boost adoption and create value:

Companies are able to build apps quickly and affordably. Currently, creating apps on top of an API is left at the full responsibility of the client. Companies will rarely have the internal capacity and resources to apply to end-to-end app development, especially for all the apps in the requirements backlog. However, with visual app development tools, companies can create prototypes and custom apps at an order of magnitude faster, at a fraction of an alternative method’s price tag. Visual mobile app development tools will therefore increase in popularity as the preferred approach for business app creation.

Visual tools make it easier to bring together various siloed software services and data sources within a single business app. Realistically, any given enterprise will have adopted at least three main enterprise API management services across its lifespan. It can be hard to access all the relevant data in the correct context. Therefore, the ease of transforming siloed cloud and data systems into a single business app will determine the success of a company’s mobility strategy. When a visual app builder has this kind of functionality built in, it really makes a difference in the speed at which business-critical apps can be rolled out.

Therefore, from a strategic point of view, software players will become much more competitive if the rest of the enterprise app equation – that is, a visual app creation tool – is provided alongside the APIs.

Partnering with a vendor to pair your API offering with a visual app development tool vs. creating your own platform

Now, looking at the enterprise API and app building scenario from a different angle, the first question from API management companies might be: “Should my company then create its own visual app development platform?” The answer is no.

As emphasized previously, even though visual app development tools are key to enterprise API adoption, singlehandedly creating an app platform isn’t the answer. This applies to SME software companies, but also tech giants. Going beyond their area of expertise by building an app builder in-house proved to be futile for, for example, SAP in 2013. The company tried to facilitate app building for its clients by launching the SAP AppBuilder. Strong strategy aside, the company’s app creation tool itself missed a key element: the capability to get an app delivered without writing code. The platform still required extra time and resources from users: it was not a fully visual app development tool, so developer resources were still needed, and development was not fast enough. Plus, the end apps were of a low quality.

A more recent example is Microsoft’s move into the app development space with PowerApps (whose success remains to be seen, as it is just now being rolled out to the first customers). Empowering non-technical professionals to build on top of Azure cloud services and utilize those APIs is genius. It also makes sense since it’s paired to a software service that has a consumer base of millions of professionals.

Other players such as Salesforce have been visionaries, opening up their APIs from the get go. Even though their angle is consumer facing and hence slightly different, they’ve been able to create an ecosystem that enables smooth creation of apps on top of their service, but even their visual tools aren’t 100% perfect.

For software players that don’t have the client reach of the tech giants or the expertise to dive into app platform development, partnering with visual mobile app development vendors is not only the perfect solution, but a golden opportunity to stay ahead of the curve. By empowering the clients themselves to build all the apps they need in record time, the APIs are sure to be consumed from the get-go, and the original value promise gets fully realized.

It’s either that, or push back the peak of the enterprise mobility revolution a few more years.

Nathanael Montgomery

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San Francisco, CA