What is an API: Product, service, integration, or something else?

What is an API: Product, service, integration, or something else?

July 11, 2018

API can be any one of these things: Important feature of a tangible product, productized service, part of a digital or real-world service, customer-specific service, interface to resources, interface to platform (boundary resource), part of an integration. Did we forget something?

An API in this case is the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) used over the networks (in particular the Internet) and the resources transmitted through them must provide clear benefits to the provider, and a value proposition for the consumer.

API can be a product, a service, a way to access a resource or a platform.... and some more..

API can be any one of these things:

  • Important feature of a tangible product
  • Productized service
  • Part of a digital or real-world service
  • Customer-specific service
  • Interface to resources
  • Interface to platform (boundary resource)
  • Part of an integration

The API is a product -chant has taken over most of the stages in API conferences all over the world. And for good reason. But is API always a product? Or can it be something else, too? What do we actually mean by the word product in this case?

We questioned this with the co-authors of API Economy 101 book. We had a scientific approach but intended to also clarify concepts to the greater audience, even business people.

I made this taxonomy of shapes and sizes an API can take for the book, with helpful comments from my co-authors. This version is slightly improved and translated compared to the version published in the book, API-talous 101 (API Economy 101) by Moilanen, J., Niinioja, M., Seppänen, M., Honkanen, M. API-talous 101, Alma Talent.

Important feature of a tangible product

API is part of a tangible product or productized service. The customer gets the API as part of the deal when buying the product.

Examples: Internet of Things (IoT) APIs for controlling and analyzing state of things like home appliances or sensors

Productized service

API in itself is a productized service, offered to all customers in the same way

Example: Translation APIs, Payment APIs

Part of a digital or real-world service

API is part of the service experience, for example maintenance service is ordered with an API, or you can monitor package delivery with an API.

Example: Logistics API

Customer-specific service

API is part of a service offered to customers as a tailor-made solution including, for example, an integration to a service providers system.

Example: APIs in customer specific applications

Interface to resources

API is just a means to access a resource the company is selling.


  • Company info APIs (risk category, owners, contact information).
  • Car APIs
  • Lightbulb APIs
  • APIs that connect human translators with customer orders
  • Cognitive APIs etc.

Interface to platform (boundary resource)

API is a means to connect with a platform and get added value through participation in the interconnecting relationships of the platform (in Platform Economy business model).

Example: Online auction API, Apartment sharing API

Part of an integration

API is means to connect in to applications and devices. Typically, for an integration use, there is some transformation and some monitoring for the data in the receiving or sending end. These are also often batch-processing cases, not necessarily real-time transactions.


  • Product API used to transfer product data from Product Information Management system to an online store
  • Employees API used to transfer employee data from HR to payroll system.

What is an API: Product, service, integration, or something else?Marjukka Niinioja
API and Data Strategist, Speaker, Author and Educator