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Some Thoughts On OpenAPI Not Being The Solution

I get regular waves of folks who chime in anytime I push on one of the hot-button topics on my site like hypermedia and OpenAPI. I have a couple of messages in my inbox regarding some recent stories I’ve done about OpenAPI recently, and how it isn’t sustainable, and we should be putting hypermedia practices to work. I’m still working on my responses, but I wanted to think through some of my thoughts here on the blog before I respond–I like to simmer on these things, releasing the emotional exhaust before I respond.

When it comes to the arguments from the hypermedia folks, the short answer is that I agree. I think many of the APIs I’m seeing designed using OpenAPI would benefit from some hypermedia patterns. However, there is such a big gap between where people are, and where we need to be for hypermedia to become the default, and getting people there is easier said than done. I view OpenAPI as a scaffolding or bridge to transport API designers, developers, and architects at scale from where we are, to where we need to be–at scale.

I wish I could snap my fingers and everyone understood how the web works and understood the pros and cons of each of the leading hypermedia types. Many developers do not even understand how the web works. Hell, I’m still learning new things every day, and I’ve been doing this full time for seven years. Most developers still do not even properly include and use HTTP status codes in their simple API designs, let alone understand the intricate relationship possibilities between their resources, and the clients that will be consuming them. Think about it, as developer, I don’t even have time, budget or care to articulate the details of why a response failed, and you expect that I have the time, budget, are care about link relations, and the evolution of the clients build on top of my APIs? Really?

I get it. You want everyone to see the world like you do. You are seeing us headed down a bad road, and want to do something about it. So do I. I’m doing something about it full time, telling stories about hypermedia APIs that exist out there, and even crafting my own hypermedia implementations, and telling the story around them. What are you doing to help equip folks, and educate them about best practices? I think once you hit the road doing this type of storytelling in a sustained way, you will see things differently, and begin to see how much investment we need in basic web literacy–something the OpenAPI spec is helping break down for folks, and providing them with a bridge to incrementally get from where they are at, to where they need to be.

Folks need to learn about consistent design patterns for their requests and responses. Think about getting their schema house in order. Think through content negotiation in a consistent way. Be able to see plainly that they only use three HTTP status codes 200, 404, and 500. OpenAPI provides a scaffolding for API developers to begin thinking about design, learn how the web works, and begin to share and communicate around what they’ve learned using a common language. It also allows them to learn from other API designers who are further along in their journey or just have had success with a single API pattern.

For you (the hypermedia guru), OpenAPI is redundant, meaningless, and unnecessary. For many others, it provides them with a healthy blueprint to follow and allows you to be spoon fed web literacy, and good API design practices in the increments your daily job, and current budget allows. Few API practitioners have the luxury of immersing them in deep thought about the architectural styles and the design of network-based software architectures or wading through W3C standards. They just need to get their job done, and the API deployed, with very little time for much else.

It is up to us leaders in the space to help provide them with the knowledge they’ll need. Not just in book format. Not everyone learns this way. We need to also point out the existing healthy patterns in use already. We need to invest in more blueprints, prototypes, and working examples of good API design. I think my default response for folks who tell me that OpenAPI isn’t a solution will be to ask them to send me a link to all the working examples and stories of the future they envision. I think until you’ve paid your dues in this area, you won’t see how hard it is to educate the masses and actually get folks headed in the right direction at scale.

I often get frustrated with the speed at which things move when I’m purely looking at things from what I want and what I know and understand. However, when I step back and think about what it will truly take to get the masses of developers and business users on-boarded with the API economy–the OpenAPI specification makes a lot more sense as a scaffolding for helping us get where we need. Oh, and also I watch Darrel Miller (@darrel_miller) push on the specification on a daily basis, and I know things are going to be ok.