Today’s web and apps reflect inspiration and innovation that then inspire others to innovate. Google’s Allison Mooney delves into the world of APIs, applications that build on the functionality of an existing web service, as examples of the way technological advances just keep on giving.

Written by
Allison Mooney
July 2011

Where do good ideas come from? Other people, mostly. Morse, Bell, Farnsworth, Ford and Gates—none of them invented anything completely from scratch. They all innovated upon existing ideas, then refined them and took them to market at just the right time, in just the right way.

The web, too, is an iterative innovation: a massive, layered, collaborative platform built upon open-source code, hacks, memes and mashups. It belongs to no single, great brain. And, thanks partly to the prolific publishing of APIs (application programming interfaces), it never will. APIs let third-party developers tap into the functionality of an existing web service, and so give everyone the ability to build upon the web’s good ideas.

In a sense, APIs can be seen as a springboard for innovation, as opposed to invention. They allow creators to take something that exists and present it in an original, as-yet-unimagined way. But in today’s warp-speed world where every digital marketer wants what’s next, they are often overlooked.

The truth is, there can be infinite new uses of any given API. Foursquare has been turned into everything from a matchmaker to a dog food dispenser (see below). There are thousands of applications that tap into Google’s APIs. Ditto for Twitter, which owes much of its success, and traffic, to the diverse ecosystem of apps that grew on top of it, repackaged it, and tailored it for new uses and audiences.

“The web is an iterative innovation: a massive, layered, collaborative platform built upon open-source code, hacks, memes and mashups.”

Marketers are realizing they don’t need to reinvent the software wheel. “APIs make developing software faster, cheaper, and easier,” says Rick Webb, whose agency, Barbarian Group, often builds on them for client projects. They plug into large online communities immediately, leveraging proven services and existing behavior. “Plus, someone else has already done all the UX [user experience] testing for you.”

Good APIs also provide valuable data and analytics. “Brands can access an amazing wealth of data using APIs correctly, and do it in a seamless way,” says Nick Parish of Contagious magazine. He points to a recent effort by, one of several sites that quickly went live to harness data from Pachube’s API on radioactivity levels in Japan: it aggregates readings from detection devices and visualizes the geographical distribution in a Google Maps mashup. Parish believes “marketers should be able to tap into real-time data sources, as they try to get temporal closeness to people.”

It can be a challenge, understanding the vast array of tools out there, and the feasibility of using them. What’s vital is for software companies to provide technical counsel and creative inspiration to brands. Google’s ZOO helps brands and agencies to creatively and effectively exploit the potential of the Google/YouTube platform, as well as its technologies and creative resources. Blogs like Programmable Web and Mashable are also a great resource for creative developers.

Protectionism can also deter API adopters. Building on someone else’s platform, especially one that traffics in social data, takes some faith. “I think for a lot of marketers, it’s tough to bring in forces you don’t entirely control and use them to help form your messaging,” says Parish. But it’s fast becoming a necessity. In a previous lifetime, a protectionist strategy was lucrative, now it’s stifling. To innovate, brands need to let go.

Part of opening up is looking for knowledge in new places. Seniority and experience were traditional table stakes for innovation. You had to have a certain level of experience before you could make things better. Today, young people have the advantage—they grew up with personal computers and mobile phones; digital is in their DNA. It will be brands courageous enough to look down the ladder for help who will now climb quickest.

The web is an iterative innovation: a massive, layered, collaborative platform built upon open-source code, hacks, memes, and mashups. It belongs to no single, great brain.

Five novel and noteworthy projects built on open APIs

German dog food maker GranataPet created a check-in controlled billboard that dispenses product samples. When you check in to the ad’s location on the Foursquare mobile app, a black box controlled by the servers spits out free dog treats. Way better than a badge.

If photo-sharing app Instagram makes you nostalgic for Polaroids, try Instaprint. The photobooth, created by Breakfast NY, uses the Instagram API to print out photos tagged with a specific place or hashtag. Bonus: the prints use the ZINK technology that made instant film so flattering.

A mashup between Twitter, YouTube and Hunch’s “taste graph,” Forage builds a personalized music playlist for you, based on the people you follow on Twitter. Enter your Twitter username, select a music genre, and the site will generate a playlist of 20 YouTube music videos.

Over the holidays, Samsung and their agency, Barbarian Group, used the Twitter API to go analog and spread a little festive cheer in the process. Their ”Tweet Wrap” promotion let people create custom wrapping paper printed with tweets from a specified hashtag or handle.

In keeping with the tagline “Nogal vol van zichzelf” (“Quite full of himself”), this app for Volkswagen’s Passat in Holland uses the LinkedIn API to measure arrogance. Challenge your network (who has the most connections? Recommendations?) and your avatar’s head swells with each win.