The Importance of APIs in Collaboration Tools

When you’re looking for the right collaboration tool, you typically look at features and price. You choose an application based on those factors because when you’re starting out with a tool they’re what matters. But as your team and your projects evolve, it’s easy to find yourself in a position where tweaking your tools would make life a lot easier. If you choose tools with APIs, you’ll have far more options in terms of tweaking down the road.

Getting Your Information Out Again

One question that’ss easy to forget about when shopping around for software is how easily you can pull your information out of a given application. Whether you may want to move to a new tool, your existing tool’s developers stop supporting it or you simply want to be able to back up your data, being able to export data is a crucial consideration.

The presence of an API in a tool is not a guarantee that there is an easy export option, but it tends to be a good indicator. Furthermore, an API means that if you need to hack together an export tool of your own, it’s typically doable — you won’t find your business or organization in a problematic situation. It may require bringing in some expert help to create the tool, but that’s still going to be less expensive than having someone retype an entire database in another application.

Robust and Growing Tools

APIs create opportunities for development beyond what an application’s creators may be able — or willing — to do on their own. For example, Basecamp is a good project management tool, but 37signals has very carefully considered what features to add; it hasn’t chosen to add every suggested feature. But there is an API for the web-based application that lets anyone create the features that they need. If you browse through just the add-ons Basecamp links to, you’ll be there for a while.

You can find a wide variety of tools that add on to Basecamp right now. On a less well-known application, you may not have immediate access to add-ons, but you will still have the option of creating your own (or hiring a programmer to build a tool that makes use of the API) fairly quickly.

This sort of robust development is a good sign for the long-term support of a tool, as well. When users have invested in a tool to the point that they’ve created a plugin or a helper tool, they’re far less likely to switch away, which in turn means that the creators have more incentive to continue supporting the tool and even to integrate plugins in the future.

Looking for an API when choosing tools simply makes sense for a growing enterprise. It should be just as important a consideration as the price or features of the tools you are considering.

Is an API on your shopping list?

Image by Flickr user skistz

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Report: The Real-Time Enterprise