The Guardian has led the way in API-based development since 2009 and now its spinoff hyperlocal social network n0tice has launched its own set of API tools to entice users and brands to build things using its content and functionality. But what is an API and why should you build one?
Fast and lean development
It's best to think of an API (application programming interface) not as a code but as a tool that powers things. The Guardian's iPhone app, iPad app and most recently its Facebook app are all built using the Open Platform API, launched by the Guardian back in 2009 - to distinterest and bafflement from the industry.
The Guardian's director of digital strategy Matt McAlister tells me: "I think the most obvious uses of it is what we can do internally and making it easier for our teams to operate and innovate and make new things, products and services.
"We have been a part of every major launch coming out of Silicon Valley in past few years - the Guardian has been a partner. And we wouldn't have been able to do it without the API.
"Can you imagine the amount of people we would have had to have to do this if you built everything from scratch?"
Does he have any advice for publishers looking to APIfy their business? Sort of: "It might be annoying to say this but, you just have to build it and it will become obvious."
A few Twitterers, inclucing some Guardianistas, helpfully answered my question of "Why API" yesterday:
@psmith APIs help you be future-proof and drive down development costs— Martin Belam (@currybet) May 23, 2012
@psmith makes the brand more visible and also open to interpretation - people using the api will come up with things you never thought of.— Joseph Stashko (@JosephStash) May 23, 2012
@psmith To make money or save money. Otherwise they shouldn't.— Matt Walsh (@Matt_Walsh) May 23, 2012
@psmith Encourages internal innovation at least as much as external. Ease of use is crucial if you want your smart people to experiment.— Mary Hamilton (@newsmary) May 23, 2012
Giving n0tice on a worldwide ambition
Meanwhile, what's going on with n0tice? The service launched last year as a standalone brand - the hefty Guardian brand isn't used anywhere on the site - with an ambition of being a locally-specific noticeboard.
The aim is to drive Craigslist-style classified ad sales - something McAlister is hoping will grow in the UK and much further afield now that publishers, local bloggers and brands can build sites and services using the n0tice infrastructure.
"It's a user platform on where people are building something. Without an API you get a lot of activity on your domain, but for a lot of people that's not worth it," he says.
The service may only have "tens of thousands" of users, who post news and ads onto local noticeboards, but the scope for new things to be built is vast. A new Wordpress plugin has already been built by an enterprising postgrad student at City University, London.
"I think it's just got a ton of potential as a global platform and there are so many directions we can," says McAlister. "I think there is an exciting classified (advertising) business there and a publishing model that's global.
"If it was exclusively on Guardian.co.uk people would have to take a real leap to understand that they can use and brand it as they want."
n0tice is being used by the Guardian internally already - but for McAlister, this really is a startup enterprise. The Guardian is "just another client", he says.
And... the business model?
Regular readers may well be asking, "that's very interesting, but how does this loss-making publisher hope to change its fortunes with a location-driven internal startup?", which would be a fair question. Does n0tice have a timeline to reach profitability?
No it does not, says McAlister: "We are not looking at it as a profit centre currently but we wouldn't be doing this if it didn't have a business model attached to it. It's not just a technology project."
Brands are invited to engage with n0tice users via challenges and tasks, for example, with ads targeted at specific locations costing £1 a day. Ads themselves are ok "...but when you give people a little task that will engage them then that becomes are more interesting," he says.
We've all heard the argument that publishers need to stop thinking like brick and mortar physical producers of things and more like technology companies. Whatever you think of the Guardian, that's exactly what it's doing here. Instead of employing three full-time hyperlocal journalists, it's built a hyperlocal platform.
A service funded by local advertising has potential, particularly if it can gain traction through Android and iOS mobile users (an iPhone app is on the way), but the returns will be small in the short to medium term.
Local vendors' migration of spend online is gradual and Google has so far cleaned up locally. Also, many local-focused ad-funded businesses underestimate the selling challenge facing them - local newspapers traditionally had teams of people hammering the phones to win business. Who's doing that, or the digital equivalent, for online startups like n0tice?
In any case, and separate to the business's quite serious challenges, the Guardian is building useful technology it can use internally and offer for use externally. It's a big, long-sighted and potentially cost-saving technology investment that others should watch closely.