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Peter Coffee: How APIs are Extending the Conversation

The cloud is a medium of connection, and first and foremost, it’s important to understand that your customers are connected, said Peter Coffee, vice president of strategic research for salesforce.com. “Are customers connected? Oh yeah,” he said at Rock Stars of Mobile Cloud.

For example, GM thought they were just selling cars, but the high use of its OnStar system—150,000 human requests and 130,000 machine-originated requests—showed otherwise. Such appreciation of how customers are using services is increasingly important.

APIs are an important piece of the puzzle. “We’ve got to have a language in order to talk about this stuff,” said Coffee. Not having a good API, he said, is “like trying to have a discussion with an interior decorator when they’re colorblind and can’t see red or green.”

It’s important to remember that APIs connect users, devices, and services. “When you’re building an API, you’re creating a language,” said Coffee. “You need to step outside your shell. Think about what is the user is trying to accomplish. If someone says, OK I’m going to write my program, break it into modules, and all will be wonderful. But object technology doesn’t always get the high usability that was expected.”

Coffee used the example of an API built for a city logistics system. Programmers didn’t have experience with warehousing, and didn’t understand that items sometimes got lost. The users created a solution for that, Coffee said. They created a new warehouse called “Warehouse 13” and whenever something was lost it went to that designation. But it would have been much easier if the programmers had included a way to handle lost items in the first place.

“When you get things right, the tool disappears into the function, he said.

Coffee used the marine rescue provider Sea Tow as an example of how enterprises can take advantage of customers’ level of connection to deliver value. Instead of placing ads in phone books and posting flyers in recreational boating areas and “continually hemorrhaging money in the hope that in the rare event someone needs you, they’ll call you,” Sea Tow put an app up in the app store.

Now, said Coffee, when a boater needs their service, all they need to do is just click the “Slide for Assistance” button on the app. “All you need to do is slide your finger to do business with them. That is what apps need to be like today,” he said.

Coffee said users are devoted to services, not devices. When salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff appeared at the International Consumer Electronics Show a couple of years ago, some attendees may have wondered what a CRM company was doing at a consumer electronics event. That attitude ignored the fact that consumer electronics devices break and need to be serviced. Benioff put it this way for attendees: “If my dishwasher is connected and it has a problem, someone should call me.”

“You want to staunch the bleed as quickly as you can –when there are problems,” he said.

More than half of salesforce.com’s calls are API calls. “This cloud thing—it’s not about technology, it’s about the services that are offered on it.”

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