Got API?
If you're home control product doesn't have an open API, then it's a niche product and not part of the future of connected devices.06-Jan-2018
Updated: 07-Jan-2018

When I visit your booth at CES expect me to ask,

“Got API?”

I’m writing this as I prepare to go to the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas where I expect to see a raft of Home Automation products. In 2017, those tended to be products such as lights controlled by apps on smartphones using Bluetooth as well as Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols. This year I expect that Amazon's Alexa will dominate that niche.

The Smart Home is something we can all relate to, although the principles also apply to Smart Cities and the larger landscape of IoT (Internet of Things).

When I visit each booth at CES, I’m going to ask whether there is an open interface (or API – Application Program Interface) that will allow me and others to use the products for more than the original use case.

Devices with open APIs like Google’s Nest and Samsung’s SmartThings expand their market by providing open APIs.

They allow the products to be integrated with other applications. For example, a standalone window shade that opens in reaction to sunlight, but which can also be integrated with other applications which use the shade as a resource and draws on other sources makes it more than just a smart shade.

Having to use a separate application for each device is like having to use one remote control for the TV volume, another to choose the cable channel, and another for the lights. But worse since each user has to have the full complement of applications and maintain them. And each is still manually operated. The smarts are embedded in the device, but I can’t add my own (or buy) smarts with software. I need access to an API to be able to integrate the device into larger systems.

Limiting the API only to channel partners and Alexa reduces the possibilities for unanticipated innovation. Though few people will create shareable applications, the few who do can create entirely new uses or hardware and services and possibly open up new markets. The products that are open will benefit from their enthusiasm.

An open API has additional benefits. It forces good design by separating the hardware functions that change slowly from the software interface that can improve rapidly. Even better if those capabilities are available to browser-based (HTML5) applications using Web APIs. The browser tools allow for a much richer interface than simple panels. The browser app can take advantage of other sources such as recipes when controlling an oven. In the future there may be markets for different front ends for appliances.

We’re at the earliest stage of a new frontier as when small computers were dedicated to a single purpose like word processing. When Dan Bricklin and I chose to build VisiCalc on personal computers we gave them a platform to do so much more. I applied this lesson to home networks with generic connectivity. This is why we are increasingly seeing a shift to Wi-Fi for connected devices rather than specialized protocols such as Zigbee and Bluetooth.

We will see a shift from cloud-based interfaces to devices such as cameras and light bulbs which have their own APIs, often http-based.

It’s easy to just build a device and use a dedicated app or, now, Alexa, to delivery functionality. It demos well to the end user. And it’s easy to understand why one wants to work with selected partners because it’s easy to see the direct benefit of each relationship.

But to tap into the synergy of a world of smart devices and to benefit from the innovation of millions of prosumers who can share their creations you need an interface for software.

For more on these concepts see my columns including January 2018 column “Assembly Required”, going back to my 1997 presentation to the CE Society.

You can already read more about APIs at

So, as I go through the show floor at CES, my question will be:

Got API?

Or should I just move on to the next booth?