At TechCrunch Disrupt, the road to innovation is paved with APIs

APIs and innovation, print your makeup at home and why Apple will falter: The Data Mill reports from TechCrunch Disrupt.

There were cutting-edge apps galore competing at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt New York show. Fetch, Cosmic Cart Inc., Vurb, to call out some, aim to shake up the customer experience. 

These daring disruptors are anything but lone rangers. To realize their full customer potential, the new apps depend upon application programming interfaces (APIs). The question is, how will that dependency play out over time?

First the customer proposition: Fetch is a mobile app that uses crowdsourcing and machine learning on the back end and a clever one-screen user interface to help customers shop online. "We think it's time to kill the online shopping cart," Tom Hadfield, CEO of Fetch, said. Users start by typing, speaking and even uploading a photo of a product to the app. The mobile app collapses your shopping windows (search, price comparison and purchase) onto a single screen.

Cosmic Cart is also gunning for the shopping cart. The technology gives publishers of fashion blogs or lifestyle magazines the ability to tag items -- a model's outfit, for example. Readers can click on those items, launching a sidebar that enables them to make purchases without leaving the page. "We're doing a live inventory ping on the back end using official APIs with our retailers," Matt Senter, chief technology officer and co-founder, said.

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Vurb, the winner of the event's "Startup Battlefield" competition, is reimagining online search. Today, websites and mobile apps operate in virtual silos. As CEO and founder Bobby Lo explained, restaurant information, movie theatre listings, reviews of films or food and dinner reservations all require a new browser tab. Vurb chunks relevant information for searches onto cards that are strung together on the same screen, which means users can coordinate dinner and movie plans within a single tab. Searches can be synchronized between desktop and mobile devices as well as saved and shared with others.

On the front end, Lo and his team have redesigned user interfaces. On the back end, technologies that enable discovery, semantic search and personalization help create "contextual bridges across services," Lo said. APIs play a role here, too. "Down the road, we'd like to talk to additional services and even build deeper relationships to get additional API access," Lo said.

The innovation behind all three technologies is the way these startups are building products to give customers a more seamless experience on the front end. Using APIs is one way the startups are able to partner with online publishers and service providers. Doing so solves an integration problem, but it also creates a complex relationship between the company that controls the API and the startup using it. Still, the trend to be more "open" appears to be on the upswing.

"We're seeing this kind of movement in having more APIs out there," Lo said. Time will tell if this movement becomes the norm, but he's not alone in his observation. Rachel Haot, chief digital officer for the State of New York, highlighted the importance of building -- and promoting -- open APIs at the recent Chief Digital Officer Summit. Lawyers.com built an API to promote content on other legal-based websites. Even Ford Motor Co. is using an open platform to give mobile service providers a way into the automobile.

Print your own makeup

One eye-opening presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt New York came from Grace Choi, a Harvard Business School graduate and inventor of Mink, a 3D printer of beauty products.

Previously on The Data Mill

Ten open data examples to get CIOs thinking

CDOs are a blessing and a curse for the CIO

Crowdsourcing can smoke out internal data science talent

"The makeup industry makes a whole lot of money on a whole lot of bullshit," said the blunt-spoken Choi. "They do this by charging a huge premium on something that technology provides to us for free, and that thing is color."

Consumers in search of a hard-to-find or unique eye shadow or lipstick color pay top dollar, Choi said. With Mink, users copy a color they see online, paste the color's hex code into a program, such as Photoshop, then print out that color using the same set of commands needed to print out any document. The printer relies on ink jet technology to mix substrates and ink, which are FDA-compliant.

Consumers would have to purchase the hardware, which Choi plans to sell for around $300, she said. They'd also have to buy substrates and ink, but both "should be commodity prices, so it's very accessible to everyone." Maybe it's not Maybelline?

Apple to lose leader status?

When Fred Wilson, founder and managing partner at New York City-based Union Square Ventures, ticked off who he believed would be the top three tech companies by 2020 based on market capitalization, Apple was noticeably absent.

"Google, Facebook and one we've never heard of," Wilson said in an interview with J. Michael Arrington, founder and former co-editor of TechCrunch, at Disrupt New York.

Today, Apple arguably lays claim to that number one spot, which prompted Arrington to ask, "Why is Apple gone?"

Here's what Wilson had to say: "[Apple] is too rooted to hardware, and that's going to become more of a commodity. They have nothing in the cloud to speak of, and the stuff they do have in the cloud is largely not good. I don't think they think about data and the cloud in the way you need to think about these things."

Say what?!?

"Last year there was more money pledged to board games than video games through the site." -- Yancey Strickler, co-founder and CEO, Kickstarter Inc.

"We personally really believe that there's a balance between taking over the world and building a sustainable business model. And we think we tread that line well in a way that's allowed us to be sustainable and continue to control our own destiny." -- Katia Beauchamp, co-founder, Birchbox

"Failures have always been a much better teacher in some ways than successes." -- Hosain Rahman, CEO and founder, Jawbone

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

This was first published in May 2014

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