Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Amazon Echo is a fun way to practice "API life skills"

Last week was my birthday, and I got an Amazon Echo. It's a remarkably cool device, but of course the coolest thing is you can write your own apps for it. (Technically they are "Alexa apps" and not "Echo apps"—Alexa is the back end that runs the apps, the Echo is a specific device that acts as a client, but there's also mobile client apps.) Amazon has a nice development environment in which you essentially write a simple "grammar" for the phrases you want your app to understand, and some "event handlers" that get called when particular phrases are recognized. You can write the event handlers in Node.js, Python, or Java. (No Ruby, but hey, I'm ecumenical and Python is just fine.)
Students of Part 2 of ESaaS know that I have strong feelings about the use of Node.js for server-side code. (This post does a great job of summarizing my views, as does this mildly NSFW xtranormal video.) Nonetheless, Amazon's developer documentation starter examples are mostly in Node, so I decided to give it a fair shake.

I decided to make an Alexa app that gives me upcoming departure information for BART, the Bay Area's rapid transit system, which I use daily to get to work. They have an RESTful XML API in which simple HTTP GETs return an XML data structure you can parse. OK, simple enough. All I would need to do in Node is do a simple GET of a URL, and find some XML parsing library so I can parse the result.

What does the code look like in Node.js to do a simple GET? It looks like this:

As a less-experienced JavaScript programmer, I had to stare at it for awhile to understand its flow, and then I realized my God, all it does is fetch a JSON data structure using an HTTP GET call. Does anyone else see what is wrong with this picture? What is app code doing trying to respond to individual HTTP-level events that occur at the transport level? This clearly violates the "A" in the SOFA principle I teach in ESaaS: a function should stick to a single level of abstraction. Plus the code is butt-ugly. I'm no more impressed with Node than I was at the beginning of the exercise.

Here's the code I wrote in Python to do the same thing (using BART's API):

But I digress. The point is writing Alexa apps is a great way to build up your API-fu, since the best Alexa apps will probably receive concise speech commands, interact with several back-end APIs, and present concise speech output. And you can write and test the apps without having a device, using Amazon's web interface to test how the app responds to specific phrases. Plus the apps can be pretty fun to use, and the device makes me feel like I live in a home of the vaguely near future.
So try out writing some Alexa apps—you can even deploy them free on Lambda, a "managed AWS" service in which you deploy handlers rather than full VMs (essentially).
But for the love of all that is good…write them in Python.

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