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Public APIs let customers connect to you in new ways.

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Of course, that might mean a customer using the app might wind up buying from a competitor instead, but Bendt says that since websites and mobile apps have changed how people shop, what's important for Best Buy is to be in the mix. "If we're not in the consideration set, that's a missed opportunity." And the fact that the API makes it possible for customers to find out if a product is available for pickup at a nearby store once they've purchased it helps provide a competitive edge over online-only retailers, he says. "Now you can search for, buy and pick up within a matter or 20 to 40 minutes."

Legacy data issues

The idea of an in-store pickup option actually came from external developers, Bendt says, and it took the chain some effort to adapt its legacy system to make inventory data available through the API; the data needed to be reformatted to be compatible. "The systems were built at a time before web services and APIs were in active use," he explains. "It wasn't built in a way to expose it externally to the developer."

The specifics of how they did that varied greatly depending on the data source, but generally the team would try to expose some "snapshot" of the data, updated as frequently as possible. If the data proved useful, they found ways to make it available in closer to real time.

   Steve Bendt
Best Buy's strategy was to start slowly, says Steve Bendt,the retailer's director of emerging platforms. Over time, it's added more data for external developers to incorporate into apps..

Getting existing systems to work with the new API was also a challenge at the World Bank, says Malarvizhi Veerappan, open data systems lead. Her group originally struggled with latency issues because their 8,000 different economic indicators were not all directly linked to one another. It was important, she says, to create a structure that could incorporate all that historical data and grow as new information accumulated.

"We didn't want the API to be a separate application. We wanted it to be part of everything else we did with the data," she says. "We needed to connect it back to our data system. It did require our improving our internal data system."

As the API grew, the team added performance monitoring and instituted policies to ensure good traffic flow. The organization also increased server capacity and added server redundancy to assure availability of the API.

When financial information provider Bloomberg LP launched its Open Market Data Initiative in February 2012, the new open API -- BLPAPI -- was actually version 3 of the software development kit the company had already been using internally, says Shawn Edwards, Bloomberg's chief technology officer. In the old days, Bloomberg customers were given a dedicated terminal that connected them to the company's mainframe, which delivered market data, news and analysis.

   Malarvizhi Veerappan
Getting existing systems to work with the new API was also a challenge at the World Bank, says Malarvizhi Veerappan, open data systems lead.

Bloomberg's project has since evolved into a software package that customers install on their own systems. Even before making it open, the company used the API to develop specific applications that allow customers to manipulate Bloomberg data on their own desktops.

With the launch of its open API, the company is now allowing customers to create their own apps, such as watch lists for selected securities or their own trading systems. They also allow outside developers to create apps that draw on other data sources as well as Bloomberg's. "We're not giving away market data. What this allows people to do is integrate with other services," Edwards says. "The API is a piece of software that connects to the Bloomberg cloud."

It just makes sense to let others do the app development, he explains. "We're not in the business of selling software," he says. "We're going to win their business by providing the best services and the best data."

When Bloomberg put out the open API, it decided to remove some of the old features that the previous versions supported. There was discussion as to whether the API should be backward compatible. "We said no," Edwards says. That meant some customers wound up with deprecated functions, but Edwards says it makes the API less cluttered with out-of-date functions.

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