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The API Lab

Promotion is a problem faced by every API developer. Long nights of coding have given form to the stroke of genius you had six months ago in the cafe. You’ve just written the API that will serve as the front door into your application. But how do you document this so that your peers will use it—and hopefully make you rich in the process?

Java had Javadoc, an innovation that managed to strike a surprisingly effective balance between ease of use and systematization (three cheers for strong typing and static binding). Web services “solved” the interface definition problem with WSDL, a standard only its authors could love (and some of these won’t admit to participating in conception). To the registry crowd was left the task of devising clever ways to document a SOAP API around the torturous abstractions of WSDL so that humans could grok it as effectively as the machines. Few would argue that their solutions were, well, solutions.

RESTful APIs neither benefit nor suffer from formalized approach and automation. Every so often WADL pokes its head up, only to be knocked decisively back into its hole in a community game of Standards-Whac-A-Mole. REST is—and indeed, has always been—a style that resists any formalism that threatens its simplicity and accessibility. For this, above all, the community deserves praise.

But this does leave a hole around documentation. APIs tend to be described-by-wiki, which can be great or just awful, depending on a developer’s ability to write and discipline to update. Good ideas like ProgrammableWeb showcase both of these extremes; however, the site suffers in particular from out-of-date API descriptions which is too bad.

Outside of the eventual acceptance en masse of some kind of standardized wiki template for APIs (which I think is actually quite likely), we probably won’t see substantial change in API documentation soon. Minor changes, though, can still count for a lot, and it’s worth pointing these out.

Google, always an innovator to watch, create a lot of APIs. They recently published the Periodic Table of Google APIs, which as its name suggests is a clever way to visually categorize their API portfolio into groups like mobile, data, geo, etc. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it is also fun and actually inspired me to try some new Google APIs that I wasn’t aware of before.

So, isn’t it about time for more creative solutions around API documentation?

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