No Jitter is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Web APIs are Transforming Enterprise Communications and Collaboration

This article reviews the status of web APIs (Application Programming Interfaces): Why they have become so important for enterprise communications and collaboration; the business strategies web APIs enable; some of the technologies relevant to web APIs; and three case studies, from Hulu, Home Retail Group, and Intuit, on their use of communication APIs to "build your own" call center, improve customer contact efficiency, and prevent fraud using voice and SMS APIs.

The Status of Web APIs
Web APIs are used everywhere: across traditional business ecosystems like NPR (National Public Radio) and the New York Times; and of course in companies born on the web like Twitter, Google, Amazon and Some Web APIs are used over 1 billion times a day--for example in May 2012 Netflix (the video-on-demand service) processed 1.4 billion API calls/day, and NPR delivered via its API 3.2 billion stories/month.

Business over Web APIs is growing rapidly; all Netflix streaming customers are paying a monthly fee of $7.99, and with 24 million streaming customers in the US as of Q1 2012, that's close to $200M per month made possible through Netflix APIs. Expedia does $2B of business a year through Web APIs. John Watton, Expedia Affiliate Network, istated n April 2012 that 90% of what his company does is business through APIs.

So what exactly is a Web API? An API is a specification intended to be used as an interface between two software components. It is a contract between the API provider and the API consumer; it is efficient to use because the interface is documented, consistent and predictable.

A Web API is simply an API that's used over the Web, as opposed to the many other APIs that exist, for example, between applications and operating systems, e.g. an iPhone app running on iOS on an Apple device. Web APIs can also be thought of as machine-readable websites: A human can go to the website and see a graphical display of the weather, or an application can use the Web API to access the weather data feed in a machine readable format.

Enterprise Web APIs can function in two ways: that of an API provider (exposing APIs) and that of an API consumer (using APIs). Not all businesses need to expose APIs; many can focus on saving money through consuming APIs, which we will review in the case studies at the end of this article. We'll examine both sides of using APIs, and from now on the term API exclusively means Web APIs.

APIs have become important because of 3 factors:

1. Process maturity: APIs offer a common way to help people and businesses collaborate;
2. Self-Service nature: Successful APIs are available on a self-serve basis--no permission is required, people can just play with the API to experiment and discover new solutions to old business problems; and 3. Technology maturity: The Web guys have by now got APIs working, and have ironed out the kinks, bugs, processes, and standards, making it easier for the rest of us to use them.

Exposing APIs
An API can be private or public; a public API means it is available to almost anyone over the Internet with little or no contractual agreement, e.g. Google Maps API. Public APIs get all the attention, but private APIs are where most of the value resides for a typical enterprise, focused on enabling the business, its partners and customers to work better together.

The New York Times API began life as a private API, to meet the need of making their internal content management system more accessible, so more people within the NYT could use the content to create better articles. A subset of the private API was exposed as a public version with prototype applications and sample code that sparked partners to experiment and come back to New York Times with new business proposals.

The mission of the New York Times is to collect, create and distribute information; once they realized APIs supported their mission, it has become core to how they operate. This process of "eating your own dog food" in exposing APIs and then exploring the opportunities of the value exposed externally is common to many API provider success stories--"build it and they will come" rarely works.

A common enterprise mistake is to focus only on the API. That's just a piece of technology, an enabler; the key is understanding the value contained within an enterprise and being prepared to take the risk in exposing that value to partners, customers and independent innovators to see what may happen, given the business strategy of the company. It's all about business, not the API itself.

Next Page: API Consumption & Technologies

API Consumption
Many enterprises have been using APIs since the 1980s with CTI (Computer-Telephony Integration). CTI enabled customer information to populate a customer service representative's computer screen based on the calling number. Well-known CTI standards include the Java Telephony API and TSAPI (Telephony Server Application Programming Interface) and the Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI) of Microsoft Windows. All were focused on call center applications within the enterprise's LAN (Local Area Network). The APIs we're reviewing here represent the next generation, and because they are Web APIs, they enable the call center to run in the cloud, as we'll see in the Hulu case study.

API Technologies
Defining some technologies used in APIs:

* REST--REpresentational State Transfer is distributed systems software architecture; the World Wide Web is the best known example. REST has become the predominant Web service design model. REST-style architectures consist of clients and servers. Clients (API consumer) make requests to servers (API providers); servers process requests and return responses.

* A RESTful web API is a web service implemented using HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and the principles of REST. It is a collection of resources, with four main characteristics: --A URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) for the web service such as;
--The data is generally in JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) or XML (eXtensible Markup Language) format;
--Operations supported by the Web service use HTTP methods (e.g., GET, PUT, POST, or DELETE); and
--The API is hypertext driven, that is it doesn't make out-of-band assumptions as in the case of remote procedure calls. I include this point principally to keep the computer scientists happy.

* OAuth is a Web standard for authorization used in many APIs. It allows a user to grant a third party access to some of their information stored with another service provider, without sharing their username and password or the full extent of their data.

* XML--Extensible Markup Language is a markup language that defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable. XML can be a little verbose, so JSON has become more popular in APIs to keep the messages short.

* JSON--JavaScript Object Notation is a lightweight text-based open standard designed for human-readable data.

Next Page: Case Studies

* OAuth is a Web standard for authorization used in many APIs. It allows a user to grant a third party access to some of their information stored with another service provider, without sharing their username and password or the full extent of their data.

* XML--Extensible Markup Language is a markup language that defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable. XML can be a little verbose, so JSON has become more popular in APIs to keep the messages short.

* JSON--JavaScript Object Notation is a lightweight text-based open standard designed for human-readable data.

Next Page: Case Studies

Case Studies
We'll now examine a few case studies of enterprises successfully consuming APIs for communications and collaboration.

Hulu: Build Your Own Call Center with Voice APIs
Hulu helps people find and enjoy premium video content when, where and how they want it. They offer content from over 260 content companies, including ABC, Comedy Central, Fox, NBC Universal, MTV, Miramax, and VH-1. While preparing to launch Hulu Plus, a premium subscription service, the customer support team needed a contact center solution that could scale reliably with the tremendous growth they were expecting in the Hulu Plus service. Hulu decided to build their own call center using communication APIs provided by Twilio.

When customers call Hulu's toll free support number, provisioned through Twilio, they are routed to an available customer support person. Hulu implemented Twilio's APIs in its internal systems so customer support is able to immediately see all relevant customer information in their browser, allowing them to provide an efficient and personalized customer experience.

If all customer support agents are busy, estimated wait times and queue positions are communicated to the caller, again using APIs. Music from popular shows on Hulu is played while callers wait, providing a unique experience. Callers have the option to press "1" at any time to schedule a call back. In this scenario, Hulu's internal systems will detect when an agent becomes available, and then automatically dial back the caller.

Being able to dial the caller back is an important feature. Long queue times result in a high rate of abandoned calls, repeat call attempts, customer dissatisfaction and increased telecom costs. The system of placing callers "on hold" is an unfortunate remnant of the way the phone system was designed decades ago. It is a very poor use of resources: the caller pays for his phone time while the company pays to keep a line open.

Virtual queuing is the concept of getting the company to call the customer back when the next agent is available. Despite its obvious appeal, virtual queuing is uncommon. There have been solutions on the market for years but their deployment has been hampered by the fact that they require integration with the call center, which is costly and time consuming. Using APIs, Hulu was able to implement virtual queuing in a few lines of code.

All of these workflows were created with the Twilio API by Hulu's development team. From the PLAY object, which enables custom audio to be played for users, to the DIAL object, which enables Hulu to programmatically dial back users when needed, Hulu was able to leverage their existing Web skills to build the solution. Also, because Twilio tracks rich metadata for each call that flows through the system, Hulu is able to track all the critical metrics for their customer support team, from total calls, average call time, and distribution of calls.

"The succinct REST-based API was familiar territory for our web developers, which helped up us get our prototype launched in one day, and into full production shortly thereafter", stated Scott Post, Hulu Software Developer.

Home Retail Group: Improve Customer Contact Efficiency with SMS APIs
Home Retail Group is a leading UK home and general merchandise retailer whose brands include Argos, Homebase and Habitat. The Group's Customer and Financial Services organization handles 10 million inbound calls a year and 2 million order and delivery e-mail inquiries. It employs 1,800 staff across three contact centers. They implemented interactive voice messaging and text (SMS) messaging from VoiceSage. This technology enables the Home Retail Group to pre-empt routine customer order and delivery queries with proactive outbound messages.

The Home Retail Group deployed interactive voice messaging and SMS text messaging technology in its telebooking facility using APIs. Traditionally, agents would call customers to confirm order delivery dates and times. Using a dialer, agents were typically achieving only a 30-40% success rate in getting through to people.

Within four weeks of using VoiceSage's solutions to automate its customer contact communications by sending a combination of text messages and pre-recorded voice messages, Home Retail Group was achieving the same number of customer contacts per hour as they did through their dialer system. Now, they have a significantly higher hit rate and have reduced the amount of their agents' time that is tied up in delivery contact activities. Telephony costs have significantly decreased too, as 60% of contacts are now being made via SMS.

Intuit Prevents Fraud with Voice and SMS APIs
Intuit provides payroll services for over 1 million small businesses. As a payroll provider, Intuit stores sensitive information. They wanted to implement an additional layer of security to protect their customers' sensitive data. To address this need, Intuit used Twilio's phone call and text messaging APIs to provide another layer of protection.

When an online user attempts to change sensitive data, Intuit sends a verification code to the user's phone, via phone call or SMS, to provide out-of-band identity verification. By proving that the online user is in possession of their phone, Intuit thwarts would-be identity thieves, with minimal inconvenience to legitimate customers.

For Intuit, Twilio proved to be the fastest way to move their new security feature to the cloud. "Using Twilio, we built both phone call and text-messaging features with just one API and one vendor, which saves time and money. Twilio was the most cost-efficient option, moving from idea to production with no up-front capital expenses," stated Ariege Misherghi, Product Manager at Intuit Online Payroll.

Knowing that onerous security features can be a stumbling block for users, the experience for Intuit's customers was paramount. Intuit built the initial proof-of-concept in one afternoon. They then rapidly moved to usability testing and deployment to an initial set of pilot users. "Given the urgency around changing payroll information for employees before a payroll run, it was very important to find a low-impact solution. We got great feedback from initial customers," Misherghi said. With that feedback, Intuit made the decision to deploy the solution to their entire Intuit Online Payroll user-base.