The programmable enterprise has arrived, with businesses in almost every market sector using application programming interfaces (APIs) to open up their software assets and encouraging developers to innovate using the infrastructure that they would not normally have access to. 

According to Chet Kapoor, chief executive of Apigee, the programmable enterprise has been around for about 18 months, and although penetration is still in single-digit figures, it is revolutionising the way that businesses operate.

He gave the example of American drug store chain Walgreens, which offers a photo printing service to its customers. In the past, customers would take a picture on their digital camera, upload it to their computer, and from there upload it to the Walgreens website, where they could order prints for collection. 

However, about 30 percent of all photos are now taken using a smartphone, so Walgreens decided to expose its website using in API. With the help of Apigee, the company has now launched iPhone and Android applications that tap into the user's photo stream and allow them to upload photos directly to the site. 

“That helped their business grow quite a bit and, by the way, they were leveraging assets that they already had – it's not something that they had to go off and build,” said Kapoor, speaking in a keynote session at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

But the next step was where the innovation really happened, according to Kapoor. Walgreens decided to make their APIs available to companies like Instagram, so that Instagram users in the US could order prints of their photos directly from the Instagram app.

This can also open up completely new channels for some companies. For example, the developer of a doodle application could offer printing facilities, allowing users to keep hard copies of their artwork, or their children's artwork.

“The programmable world is here, and it's not only happening with digital natives like web companies, it's happening with digital immigrants too,” said Kapoor. 

“There are companies like Whole Foods, which is a grocery store; companies like Bethell, which is a construction company; it's happening with companies like Shell. They are doing things to get more efficient internally and to use mobile as a platform for innovation for their own developers, their partners, and with the ecosystem developers out there.”

Kapoor said that apps are also changing the data centre, because mobile is forcing companies like Oracle and SAP to break down their monolithic applications into much smaller apps. This is driving the move towards software-defined networking, which allows the data centre to become programmable.

“Our big push on the programmability of the data centre is that it should be consumable. If there's one thing that the web has taught us it's that people have choice, and if you don't make it easy for them to use it they probably won't. It's something that enterprise folks like myself have had to learn over a period of time,” he said.

The concept of the programmable data centre is still relatively nascent, but the practice is not uncommon in web companies, which have always had to deal with vast quantities of traffic. Kapoor believes that competition in this market will heat up in 2014.

The key, according to Kapoor, is to stop thinking about digital ecosystems in terms of inside and outside the enterprise', and start thinking imore n terms of a continuum. This is because the edge of the enterprise is moving rapidly, and can no longer be defined in simple terms.

Enterprises that want to innovate around mobile need a single strategy that will enable them to develop applications internally, collaborate with parters and also take advantage of the 'long tail' by creating some sort of open garden. 

Apigee hopes to help companies achieve this with a platform called OneAPI Exchange, which was launched by the GSM Association at MWC. The platform is supported by five mobile operators (AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone) and currently offers three APIs – messaging, operator ID and payments.

Using the OneAPI Exchange platform, developers can add network-based features to apps that run on Android, BlackBerry, iOS and Windows Phone as well as browser-based applications.

They can also subscribe to an operator network API and then choose additional operators they would like their app to work with. All billing, metrics and usage data is streamlined through a single point, eliminating the need for direct and complex multi-carrier deals. 

“Our goal is for developers to become like subscribers. If you're a subscriber, you have a relationship with an operator, you go anywhere on the world, you roam, you come back and you get a bill from one operator,” said Kapoor.

“We want to be exactly that. Developers should be able to write to one API with the operator of choice, and that application should be able to work anywhere in the world across many APIs.”