The importance of APIs

This week was interesting for owners of Nissan Leaf all electric vehicles.  Nissan has apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry that let owners see the battery level of their car, turn on and off charging and set the climate control inside their car.  For Windows Phone users (and any other platform like Windows 8 and any non-officially supported platform) 3rd party apps like LEAF Commander were an important to us.

Then a week or so ago Nissan said the following about the ability to use these apps:

“for the privacy and security of our owners, Nissan will be removing that capability” [op: ability to use 3rd party apps]

This of course went down like a cup of cold puke with owners. Especially so in the Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond area where Microsoft is king and Windows Phone reins supreme.  LEAF Commander is being used by > 2000 active Leaf owners worldwide. So the network of Leaf owners erupted and i am sure the poor people at the Nissan customer support desk got an earful from more than a few disgruntled people.

It must have got their attention as today I got an email back from Nissan saying:

Based on initial customer feedback, we understand how important this connectivity is to LEAF drivers, and we will delay taking this action while we further study other potential solutions and explore ways to keep customer data secure.

It’s a shame it’s just a delay … but hopefully this results in a better thought out decision.

So what does this have to do with APIs? 

As I understand it there isn’t a well documented and thought out API for talking to the Nissan system.  These apps have users type their usernames and passwords into the apps themselves & i am guessing that is what Nissan were unhappy about.  The reason being that if you give your username and password to an App then it could send it or save it and use it for whatever it liked.  There would be no way to tell if it was a real user or an app that was calling the Nissan service.  This would be like giving someone your username and password. 

This is the reason why may services on the internet like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, TripIt and Office 365 included use OAuth to broker allowing/trusting an app to make calls to a service on a users behalf.  The user never gives the app their username and password, they just authorize an app and tell the services that it’s ok for that app to do certain things on their behalf.  When they no longer are ok with that they simply revoke that apps access. In Facebook that screen looks like this:

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I would dearly love to see Nissan open up an API that any app developer could use and that was authorized with something like OAuth.  This would left other developers build on their APIs, offer their customers great app experiences and most importantly build customer satisfaction.  I use a lot of 3rd party app for services like Twitter because i think they are better and offer me more than the official ones.  The same goes for the Nissan apps (CarWings is the apps name if you want to check it out).  They are ok … but not GREAT! I am sure other developers could do better & add other things alongside the basic stuff that Nissan have no interest in.

Take my experience with Trip It for example.  I make an app called My Trips for Windows Phone and Windows 8 that gives people a better TripIt experience than the official app on Windows Phone and an alternative to using the browser on Windows 8 (offline etc..)  TripIt have embraced others building apps on their service. There are loads of apps out there that integrate with TripIt, sync trips back and forth, integrate between systems etc… Its a pretty robust ecosystem. And they get a lot of credit for allowing it!

In summary I think this short story novel helps illustrate the importance of having APIs. One company went about poorly supporting their customers (via a no API option) and others are embracing it and thriving (TripIt, 365 etc…). I would dearly like to see Nissan learn from this and offer a secure and robust API that we can build great experiences over.  Hopefully they wont just delay the decision, they will hopefully build out a real API and method of accessing it!

In this world of connected devices and services I can imagine this only becoming more important and one where companies that get it right thrive and those that don’t fail.

OK OK I secretly want to be able to control my car from my watch … come on MS and sell a surface watch and Nissan with a decent API!

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