Intro to APIs: What They Are and Why They Matter

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API is an acronym for Application Programming Interfaces. Of late, the wide-spread emergence of APIs in conversation has become more frequent. This is due to the attention APIs are currently getting from the mainstream media.

When broaching the subject of APIs and the economy of the API, the one thing we hear more than anything else is the question, “What is an API?” It is, in fact, a tough one to answer. But the potential for the billions of dollars to be saved/earned with the understanding of APIs is well worth the effort.

To answer the question in an understandable manner will not just assist developers to be more effective and contemplative about leveraging the deliverance of APIs within their wares, but can efficiently kick-start the required conversation between business stakeholders seeking out new opportunities, and technical staff chartered with transforming an organization’s infrastructure into a picture of future strategies and objectives.

In a seven-part series on APIs, David Berlind, editor-in-chief of Programmable Web turns to well-known real-world metaphors for readers to begin to get a true understanding of APIs and how they function. Additionally, he shows examples of opportunities that are often unlocked per their underlying architectural principles of abstraction and standards.

When choosing between metaphors to determine which would be the most appropriate, it was quickly discovered that there was not any single metaphor that fit seamlessly. This serves now to prove the unique value that is presented by APIs. There are, however, some metaphors that make it a bit easier to visualize when you effectively bring the right points home. In comparing APIs to electric sockets, for example, the service provider in this instance isn’t exactly responsible for every last bit of wiring right up to your socket.

What is an API?

APIs are like user interfaces—just with different users in mind. APIs as a contrasting option to something that practically everybody who has utilized an application knows about: the UI. Programming needs an interface that makes it simple to expend information. Enter, application programming interfaces. An API is essentially a machine-readable interface, designed specifically for consumption by software. This is the reason APIs are often explained in the mainstream media as a technology that allows for conversations between applications or software programs.

So if we return to the example of the wall socket mentioned above, an API dictates how parts of a software will interact with each other, much like the way electricity flowing into your microwave oven makes the appliance work. It will allow your product or service to communicate with another product or service.

An example of this is having PayPal handle your payment on your online retail store. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, where an API is used to communicate between your service and PayPal’s.

What are the Benefits of APIs?

APIs can provide many benefits to their consumers including desktop, Web, mobile and server-side applications. These benefits are similar to those provided by electrical sockets to their consumers (your microwave oven, for example). So essentially, they can be used to integrate websites with other web systems through standardization, which can:

Improve conversion by increasing traffic and sales, by giving access to other vendors to include your products on their websites. It can also help glean more social insights into customer engagement, generate more leads, and help in developing more lightweight apps without compromising on efficiency.

The API economy now traverses a large number of API-giving organizations crosswise over several classes. Inside every classification, there are numerous offerings, all competing for the affections and cash of outsider designers–any of which could unleash the following API-expending Zillow, Instagram or Uber.



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