Mashery, a specialist in managing traffic seeking a company's mobile services, has produced a documentation service that eases several problems that developers often encounter in building mobile applications.
Ease of access to services through a company's APIs is likely to become an issue for many enterprises as they plan their next phase of e-commerce. Gartner predicts 75% of the Fortune 1000 will offer a public API by 2014, according to a June 28 report. An API is a set of programming instructions, protocols, and code that serves as an automatic door opener to customers, once an application for a mobile device has been interfaced to it.
Google Maps appear in many iPhone and other mobile applications because Google produced a public API that grants access to Maps services.
But it's not enough to merely establish an API. Getting independent developers to produce applications that use it is the next challenge. Attracting outside developers may soon prove a key competitive front for companies seeking to expand their business through e-commerce.
Mashery's I/O Docs is intended to help on that front. Companies that document their APIs in Mashery's free online service will be making them available to developers with several built-in features. A developer for HP's TouchPad, for example, might go to I/O Docs to find out how a target company's API works. Once there, he would find the system had captured the key he was given to use by HP and that's required each time his application invokes the API. I/O Docs re-enters the key each time it is required as his app calls the API. That's a time-saver and avoids typing errors frequently encountered when developers have to enter the keys themselves, assistance that developers prize. The keys are tied to a digital fingerprint and security certificate, which assures HP systems that the application call was produced by a known developer.
In addition, Mashery has designed I/O Docs to be an execution environment as well as a frequently updated text environment. The developer, learning about a company's API, could also test code that invokes it from within the documentation site. This move brings the information about an API and its early use closer together, explained Neal Mansilla, Mashery's director of product management, in an interview.
Developers can produce and debug code on the I/O Docs site as they figure out how to use the API, he said. Mansilla is giving a talk on I/O Docs and the problems of API use July 29 at the OSCON, the open source code conference in Portland, Ore.
Althougth I/O Docs is a free service, developers must register with Mashery to use it. If thousands of developers do so, companies seeking to attract developer traffic may be more likely to use Mashery's API management services as well. APIs often result in hundreds of thousands or millions of calls to a company's API a day, with unpredictable traffic peaks. Mashery manages the New York Times APIs, for example, so that the company's IT staff can focus on other issues.
"We found documentation is the one of the first places developers go, even more so than code samples, community forums, or software development kits," Mansilla said. I/O Docs was designed to capture that initial inquiry and hold developers there as they learn about the API.
On the Web, API documentation is notoriously weak, with the changes made to APIs frequently outstripping the updates made to their documentation. Following outdated documentation costs developers time and effort when their applications don't work as expected. I/O Docs in part automates the updates to the documentation when changes to an API are made within it, he said.
Other sites, such as developer social networking site Klout, can make use of the I/O Docs system under their own brand, if they prominently display a Mashery label. Klout does so and manages two billion API calls a month for its services. Mashery "makes our API documentation both interactive and inviting," said Matt Thomson, VP of platform at Klout, in the announcement of the service. The Klout version can be found at here.
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