Byron Sebastian on the future of the API economy

API Economist:  I heard this quote, “Not having an API today is like not having a website circa mid-90s.” Do you agree or disagree with this and why?

Byron Sebastian is an amateur olive farmer. We recently caught up with him while he was ensconced on his farm. Byron is the former CEO of  Heroku  (acquired by in December 2010). He took time from his agrarian schedule to share his thoughts on APIs and the role of social, mobile, and cloud computing.

Byron Sebastian is an amateur olive farmer. We recently caught up with him while he was ensconced on his farm. Byron is the former CEO of Heroku (acquired by in December 2010). He took time from his agrarian schedule to share his thoughts on APIs and the role of social, mobile, and cloud computing.

Byron Sebastian: No, I don't agree with it, I think it is a small minded way of thinking about the Internet and our industry.

APIs are a worthy technique used by developers to exchange data and data processing tasks. Right now APIs appear to be a critical part of the information revolution, one of the most important transformations in the history of civilization.

So I wouldn't compare APIs to building websites in the 90s, I'd compare APIs to the wheel, or the library, or mass production. It's both as big as those concepts and, once in your consciousness, as obvious (as "duh") as them.

Smart developers don't stop and think "I better build some APIs because that's what everyone's doing these days." They just build APIs, because that's part of how you build interesting and valuable apps.

API Economist: Corey Scobie had an interesting keynote at QCon last November where he talked about the API economy as having arrived. By API economy, he meant the human innovation that’s being created via open APIs, citing the examples of Salesforce, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, and LinkedIn (to name a few). These are all very new types of businesses. How do you see the API economy effecting traditional enterprises with legacy back-end systems? What will they need to do to embrace this API economy?

Byron Sebastian: Every business is impacted by what you call the API economy, bar none really, with many industries in indirect ways, and most in very direct and fundamental ways. If I'm, say, a family farmer in Sonoma County (which it turns out I am these days) I can mostly sit back and enjoy the benefits passively — better information about weather, pricing, customers, etc. In other industries, APIs will transform my whole business — the way I acquire and please customers, the way I gather and assemble the means of production, or most exciting what I actually offer to sell my customers.

The way to embrace APIs and the API economy is to give small numbers of smart developers who understand your business the freedom to create, experiment, fail, and try again, and to do so in contact and collaboration with developers from your customers and your business partners.

API Economist: Everywhere you look these days you can’t help but notice organizations, thought leaders, and the technology press talking about social, mobile, and cloud. But let’s take a closer look at social. What does it mean to be social? How will this change how enterprises and organizations conduct their business? Do these traditional enterprises need an API strategy?

Byron Sebastian: "Social" and "mobile" used in this way are essentially just words we use to excite people about the industry, and we need new words every few years because people have short attention spans. The great transformations are the Internet and high speed wireless communication (I probably forgot a couple of others), and our challenge in this industry is to understand how to apply those in ways that makes people happier and more productive.

Humans and organizations are inherently social and mobile. We don't need to become social and mobile. But… we spend far too much time sitting at our desk staring at screens and interacting with machines than we should. It's not very productive, and it tends to make those of us who aren't software engineers unhappy. We'd rather be out building something valuable, talking to customers or colleagues, or simply getting our job done faster for more money so that we can go home and enjoy life and our families.

o to try to answer the latter questions in this section more precisely, I'd say that every enterprise needs to understand what tools the IT industry is producing, and should have a decoder ring for the jargon that the industry speaks. If you turn the decoder ring to "2013" it should say, “Social = tools to help people communicate and collaborate better” and “APIs = a way to automate and exchange information and information processing.” There's no enterprise in the world that doesn't care passionately about those two things.

Olive tree, Healdsburg, CA

Olive tree, Healdsburg, CA

API Economist: On the subject of cloud, you are clearly a pioneer in PaaS [Platform as a Service] from your tenure at Heroku and Salesforce. You also have deep understanding of enterprise IT from your days at BEA Systems. What challenges do you see for traditional enterprise application development leveraging this new cloud-based approach?

Byron Sebastian: The biggest challenges to using 'cloud' are trust and resistance to change. They are real challenges, but will be overcome. It's inevitable.

Just as you no longer generate the electricity for your home or business, one day soon you'll no longer need to run the computers, or even pay someone else to run the computers. You'll simply buy services that do interesting and valuable things for you. Contrarians might want to talk to my neighbors up here in the hills of northern California who are running their homes off of solar panels on their roofs [Laughter].

API Economist: On the subject of mobile, both Apple and Android have a combined total of over 1 million apps in their app stores. There seems to be an app for every human endeavor. What is the future of mobile apps in the enterprise?

Byron Sebastian: All apps will be mobile in the enterprise except for the rare few where you need large screens. Humans don't like sitting at desks interacting with machines that don't make anything. They will be happy and more productive if they don't have to. Period!

The apps that won't be mobile are the ones where you are in fact using the computer to make something interesting and need a large screen - say Photoshop, maybe text editors for developers and authors.

API Economist: What are your favorite mobile apps?

Byron Sebastian: Facebook, email, and Tumblr.

API Economist: Good luck with the olive farm!

Byron Sebastian: Thanks! It’s been a pleasure.