A “Cambrian Moment” for product development
The Economist calls this era a “Cambrian Moment”, comparable to a time 540 million years ago when the natural environment on earth had reached a point where it supported the explosive growth of the animal kingdom. Today a huge ecosystem of pre-existing services and API-ready devices provide leverage to develop new products at a fraction of the cost compared to just a decade ago, ushering in an era of explosive product development.
1) Access to virtually unlimited computing infrastructure
The ease of access to virtually unlimited computing infrastructure creates a very low barrier to entry on the back-end side. Platform-as-a-Service platforms, such as Heroku and AppFog, provide quick access to servers, while Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) providers, such as Parse and Firebase, provide scalable real-time backends out of the box. Using a BaaS for simple tasks such as user authentication and account data storage can save between 20% and 40% of the upfront development time on a simple application project.
2) Utilize existing APIs
In addition to hosting platforms, thousands of services provide APIs to leverage their offerings from any application. Many are free or offer trivial entry costs. As an example, do you need your application to place a call or send an SMS? The Twilio API can help. Need to navigate your users between two locations? Look no further than the Google Directions API. The number of services grows daily and websites such as ProgrammableWeb can help you find the right API for your project.
3) Build on existing hardware platforms
In addition to a massive library of software services, a quickly growing cadre of programmable hardware is infiltrating lives and homes. Today two-thirds of Americans are carrying smartphones with them--everyone’s super computer in a pocket. Smartphones of course provide an incredibly accessible hardware platform to launch your application on, with battery usage concerns being the most common limiter. And the growing popularity of smart watches means that this computing power can now extend to your users' wrists.
Beyond smartphones and smart watches there are other existing hardware devices that offer a platform for new applications. For example, Jawbone’s UP API provides data about the owner’s movement and sleep patterns. Combined with the Nest Thermostat API, an application could now control your home temperature based on your activity level. Is your UP detecting that you are very active, perhaps cleaning your house? Have the application automatically bring down the inside temperature a few degrees so you don’t overheat, particularly if the outside temperature for your location (via the OpenWeatherMap API) is higher than your indoor temperature. The possibilities for combining APIs to create new applications are virtually limitless, and scrolling through the integrations already available between devices on IFTTT shows just how limitless the opportunities for automation are.
4) Create your own ecosystem
Consuming existing APIs isn’t the only way to take advantage of the rich digital ecosystem through APIs. By creating your own API you can tap into the existing networks of developers that can then create value to your business and customers through additional application features that consume and interact with your data. In order to encourage 3rd party development, you will want to create a rich API feature set that provides value to other applications. The more data access you can provide the better, but you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of exposing too much of your product’s data. A myriad of online resources exists to guide API developers through the best practices (such as API Evangelist), as well as companies that will handle your API development for you (such as Apigee). Once you have an API exposed, having solid API documentation in place is key to encourage 3rd party development.
In summary, there has never been a better time to begin developing a digital product. Be sure to leverage all the resources available, and the dividends will not only pay out for you, but also for your users and other developers in the digital ecosystem.