The modern software development industry owes a lot to APIs. APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, are software intermediaries that standardize how software applications communicate and interact with each other. Thanks to this, developers are able to create more complex and interconnected applications faster and more efficiently. Moreover, they are also empowered to innovate by using other developers’ APIs to make offshoot apps. 

The result of this is a more agile and software coding community that, while still competitive, allows innovation to flourish through collaboration and technology sharing. Many companies like Stoplight have benefited from this growth and have come to develop many interesting APIs and tools to help expand the industry further.

With that said, while it is important to recognize what API technology has contributed to the software industry, knowing about the history of APIs is just as significant. This will inform developers about the benefits that APIs have brought and how they can take such benefits to the next level, all while avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls of the past. 

To help you in this regard, we will be examining a historical timeline of the type of APIs that have made the most impact on the IT industry, namely web APIs.

The Early 2000s

While APIs have been part of the software landscape since the 1960s in the form of “libraries,” it would be 40 years later, and just after the first Dot-Com crash, that web APIs would truly come to the fore.

On February 7, 2000, officially launched the very first enterprise-class and web-based sales force automation solution as an “Internet as a service” package. This package consisted of XML APIs, which had been part of Salesforce’s solutions from the day of their inception. This was due to the company correctly identifying that their customers needed to share data quickly and easily across their many business applications. Salesforce recognized that APIs were just the tools to facilitate such a function.  

With this historical move, Salesforce cemented itself as the first company to combine an enterprise-class web application, as well as their API, to deliver a product that we know of today as SaaS or Software-as-a-Service. It would not be long before more full-fledged solutions, such as those that allow for using a complete API toolkit for teams and enterprise settings, would be available.

Fast forward a few months into the new millennium and the next huge step would come from eBay, with the online shopping and auction company launching the eBay API along with the eBay Developers Program. The intent was to address the many legitimate and illegitimate third-party applications that were taking advantage of the shopping platform. By releasing their API, eBay hoped to turn them into official partners. Such a proactive move from eBay would also grant it the reputation as the single leading pioneer in ecommerce web-based APIs and web services. It would be a reputation that the retail and auction giant continues to enjoy to this day.

2003 To 2006 

While web APIs certainly were pushed into the limelight thanks to a booming e-commerce economy, it would only be at the inception of social networking that the very idea of freely sharing one’s API to activate the API economy would catch on. 

This movement was started by the social bookmarking service, whose main feature revolved around being able to tag your web bookmarks to catalog them for convenience, as well as sharing them with the rest of the world. So if you uploaded your bookmarks and tagged them with a unifying descriptor such as “video games,” you would be able to pull up these bookmarks from another PC or browser just by logging in and searching for that tag. At the same time, your bookmarks would also show up for other users when they also search the “video games” tag on 

The service’s app was also built into the site so that it was very easy to engage with, both from a user and a developer’s perspective. A user, for example, would be able to parse the XML or RSS from the website API, while a developer would be able to develop apps or widgets around results.

This social bookmarking service would then be followed by the photo sharing website Flickr, whose launch in February 2004 would herald the release of their API six months later. Flickr’s API was all about allowing users to easily share and embed their uploaded photos onto their blogs and social media apps. This user-generated content was shared freely to get more users into using Flickr itself.

Two years later, Facebook would launch its development platform alongside its API. While both were considered unstable by many developers, they still ushered in a brief period where nearly every single developer was using them to create a large variety of games, apps, and other mashups. 

Around the same time, Twitter also publicly released their API to much anticipation. This would fast-track the creation of many offshoot apps and clients that focused on delivering Twitter functionality to as many platforms as possible. There would be a few hiccups in Twitter’s API release, one of which involved the social media giant’s infamous swapping from Basic Auth to OAuth for authentication purposes. Despite this, many consider it to be another solid step towards the acceptance of big companies releasing their APIs to the public for their use.

2005 To 2006

A year into the social media API craze, many developers and IT experts would soon see the need for a more standardized and formal approach when it came to the use, creation, and management of APIs. One such expert was John Musser. In July of 2005, he started ProgrammableWeb, a one-stop website where developers of all experience levels would be able to access news, information, resources and more on developing apps using web APIs. This had a very significant impact on pushing web APIs into the mainstream. 

This push would be proven successful with the official launching of Mashery in November 2006, the very first company to offer API management services to other companies seeking to provide public or private APIs. These management services, which included documentation support, community management, and access control, would be the first standard set of services offered to those in the still-budding API industry. The existence of such standardized services helped to further cement web APIs as a legitimate and bona fide way to do business online, as well as present opportunities for other companies to start offering similar services. 

2006 To 2016

With their relevance and importance to the internet already firmly established, web APIs soon started fueling innovations that would revolutionize the way we dealt and thought about the internet at large.

June 29th, 2006 saw Google releasing their Google Maps API to the public, allowing developers from all over the world to not only put Google Maps on their sites, but also hack the API directly to create their own home-brewed applications. This enabled the rise of many apps that leveraged the extensive and detailed maps that Google itself has amassed. Examples of such apps included a housing location app to assist real estate agents, as well as an app that helped identify crime hotspots in Chicago. 

In the same year, Amazon came out with a storage web service called Amazon S3. Powered by a seemingly simple RESTful API that allowed GET and PUT requests with objects and files, it gave customers and developers a simple interface in which to store and retrieve data quickly and inexpensively. Their data would be stored in the same huge servers that the retail giant used to run its global network of websites, but the convenience that such service offered at such a low cost meant that it quickly became extremely popular. It was with this service, and the usage of a RESTful API in its delivery, that the concept of cloud computing was born. 

With their influence growing and having become integral to many significant breakthroughs, it was only a matter of time before web APIs became involved in the mobile market as well. The first move was seen with location sharing app service Foursquare, whose API was launched nine months after their unveiling. Foursquare was then followed by Instagram and Twilio, whose own public API releases fueled the creation of many photo-sharing and telephony apps and sites respectively. With such a decisive move, web APIs had grown from being a simple concept to the hidden backbone of the modern software development industry.

Web APIs: A History Of Technological Breakthroughs Fueled By Competition And Collaboration

Given how hypercompetitive the software development industry can be, it’s remarkable to consider how the web API industry flourished as it did since its very existence hinged upon companies releasing their APIs for public use. It demonstrates that the sharing of technology creates many advantages and opportunities that might otherwise go untapped and may generate entirely new industries and markets. The history and development of web APIs presents a striking and relevant example that can provide guidance for developers and businesses in exploring future advances in web services and software infrastructure.

Richard is an experienced tech journalist and blogger who is passionate about new and emerging technologies. He provides insightful and engaging content for Connection Cafe and is committed to staying up-to-date on the latest trends and developments.