APIs can be used for a web based system, an operating system, or for a database. They also make it possible for large services to allow third party applications to essentially piggyback on their offerings by exposing some of a program's internal functions to the outside world, but in a limited way. Applications can share data and take action, without code sharing required.
Most of us already use APIs regularly, whether signing in to a new application with your Facebook ID or linking through from an application to Google Maps.
What this means in the accounting world is that your cloud accounting platform becomes your central hub, and your account data can be used to make your business processes more efficient. For example, connecting your Xero account with Debtor Daddy enables you to automate your debtors chasing process with data from your receivables.
I've written about the rise of platform-as-a-service here, with the Xero ecosystem now having over 400 accounting software add-ons that can provide instant capabilities for a business owner. Xero has always had an open, or public API, alongside a robust developer support community. As a technology firm, giving open access has meant enrichment of its core offering. This approach has given it a competitive advantage, making it the go-to cloud accounting software for the SMB market.
Why should we care?
The great thing about competition in the market is we all lift our game in response (well, or we don't. But that never ends well). It's an exciting time to be in the accounting industry where there are now so many possibilities for efficiency gains. With the move away from compliance work to business advisory services, keeping up with third party applications is more important than ever.
There may also be ways you can integrate APIs into your own business, for example by using Zapier to connect the apps you use. You could potentially fire up an HTTP client to make a few requests to get quick stats from a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) application, create a simple program to complete a labour intensive data task, or move data regularly between two SaaS apps.
In many ways all business are becoming technology businesses. Consider ways your firm can leverage technology for your own competitive advantage.