Much has been written lately about the rise of the API. Offering a programming interface to an online service is now standard practice amongst this generation of web companies. Through APIs, we get to enjoy a range of innovative Twitter clients, wide availability of maps and location information, custom search engines, and more. However, delivering superior user experience on major platforms should be as much of a priority as opening up via an API.

Just because an API enables companies to create a third party ecosystem around their service, it doesn't mean that the company itself shouldn't be an active player in it.

Editor's note: Looking back over 2008, there were some posts on ReadWriteWeb that did not get the attention we felt they deserved - whether because of timing, competing news stories, etc. So in this end-of-year series, called Redux, we're resurrecting some of those hidden gems. This is one of them, we hope you enjoy (re)reading it!

Web sites are only one kind of presence that companies can have today. Social Networks like Facebook and MySpace, mobile platforms like iPhone and Blackberry, browser extensions and RIA Applications all have an equal - sometimes considerably larger - share of users attention. Figuring out which presence should be delivered by the website vs. a third party is an important question that each company should ask.

User Experience is King

User interface innovation is a major part of the ongoing web revolution. As we've recently written in The Rise of Contextual User Interfaces post, static user interfaces are 'dead'. The new interfaces are simpler and more contextual. Instead of revealing choices upfront, they present them based on user gestures and context. The new user experience is about fluidity.

The innovations have set the bar for UI high. Users demand simplicity and elegance and want to know how to use the product without a manual. They expect the software to work perfectly, for it to be helpful and smart. No company can afford to ignore usability, or it will lose users to someone doing the same product with a better UI.

Today the user experience is not just a set of widgets or a website design. As Leander Kahney explained in his book Inside Steve's Brain, for Steve Jobs design is the function.

This is increasingly true about any modern web application. Users perceive all elements of the service as the service itself. They don't distinguish particular widgets inside Twitter or Twitterific; the vertical conversational faceroll defines Twitter. The way the service is delivered is why users like it.

Why Controlling User Experience is Important?

Each service that we love, whether Twitter or Digg or Flickr or del.icio.us, has its particular look, feel and philosophy. Passionate users enjoy these services because of the elements, choices and collective experience that the services deliver. The clients built on top of the API would not necessarily channel the secret sauce. For example, RIA applications for Twitter are built for people who don't work for Twitter and don't regularly communicate with the Twitter team. They're not going to preserve the user experience philosophy.

Third party clients create new user experiences, which are at times confusing. As a user, on web, desktop and iPhone, ideally you'd like to experience the service the same way, but if the iPhone application is delivered by someone else the experience might not be the same.

In addition to user experience, there's the issue of branding. Larger companies are strict about their identity. When a couple of guys build an Amazon application for iPhone, they won't pay close attention to Amazon branding. Some will argue it doesn't matter as long as it drives transactions for Amazon. Yes and no. Yes because the users will buy. No because the users will accumulate imperfect user experience and associate this with Amazon, which might add up to a big negative.

Monetization Factor

A strong reason for investing in user experience is monetization. Many consumer services today are monetized via advertising. Having additional presence on different platforms increases the potential volume of advertising.

Put simply, many Twitter clients, like Twitterrific, are already monetizing the service by adding a single ad on top of each result set. If Twitter owned the RIA client, it would be able to monetize it in the same way.

Any service that is transactional or advertising driven benefits from multiple interfaces. Whatever it takes to reach the user to deliver value and drive the transactions is what services have to do. In the world of APIs, we at times forget that service should tap into all its major channels to build the business.

Which Platforms Are Critical?

Which platforms are important to tap into? There are 4 major venues for companies to consider seriously: iPhone, RIA, Facebook and Browser Extensions. All these platform plug into the same audience, but in a different context.

iPhone is great on the go. With the opening of the App Store, increasingly iPhone is going to be our personal computer. RIA clients are popular, particularly among early adopters who want richer, snappier experience compared to the web. Facebook, despite its recent scaling back on the platform, remains a major way to reach mainstream audience. Browser extensions enable the user to access the service from around the web.

Tapping into these platforms is not cheap. Building a specific and correct solution for each platform requires product management, development and testing resources.

If the company has correct API, the exercise is simpler. Instead of duplicating the application, the company builds a client for each platform and benefits from common API and common back-end architecture. It is not trivial to maintain presence in all these places, but it's likely to pay off.

Conclusion

APIs offer an amazing way for companies to scale, to create an ecosystem of innovation and tap into a wider audience. Companies should consider building and managing their presence on major platforms like iPhone, Facebook, RIA and Browsers. The way that people perceive and interact with the service is increasingly important; just rolling out an API and having a third party take care of the client could be dangerous. In addition an opportunity of being in front of the audience driving monetization could be missed.

And now tell us which of your favortire services you want to see build presence on different platforms?