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What exactly is an API (Application Programming Interface)?

APIs have been a hot topic lately, yet, they’ve been around for almost 60 years at this point. So why are so many people talking about them now? Basically, without APIs, our digital experience wouldn’t be possible without them.

While you may not be aware – you’re benefiting from APIs at this very moment. You’re reading this article in a browser. At the moment, the browser is getting the letter through an API. That allows it to display this article to you.

Furthermore, you probably know that most online services come with their own API and that probably made you wonder – -what exactly is an API? If you go by PC Mag’s definition, the term is an abbreviation for Application Programming Interface – but that doesn’t really explain anything.

In order to help you understand what an API is and how it works, we are going to explain the ins and outs of APIS in the language anyone can easily understand.

What is an Application Programming Interface?

From a strictly technical perspective, an API is a set of standards and instructions for accessing an Internet-based service or app. Most APIs are designed by service providers and give guidelines on how to interact with that particular service.

In most cases, an API describes the functionality of the services, explains how it can be accessed and used, and what formats it will accept as input. Ok, all of that probably sounds overly-complicated for the average reader, so we’ll try to explain what an API is in a more approachable way.

Let’s draw a parallel with the English language – just think of software development as a whole as the language. An API functions as a dictionary for a certain piece of software. It’s an item where some words are exemplified and defined.

People who don’t know English use dictionaries to comprehend the meaning of certain words and phrases. Subsequently, they try composing sentences using the words they picked up from the dictionary. An API functions in the same way.

It allows a developer to integrate certain features into their app without writing a piece of code.  

How do APIs Work?

Well, the main idea behind them is that they allow developers to, for a lack of a better term, develop more reliable software quicker. If you’re a developer, instead of spending endless hours of establishing all the features of your app, you can simply use an API to get things done faster.

APIs allow you to enrich your code with already-developed software by connecting it to your app.

An API is usually responsible for a lot of heavy lifting, both in the mobile and digital world. APIs are responsible for almost everything modern users do. They allow us to buy clothes, order food, rate songs and even download software.

Example of an API in Action

They work in the background, relatively unnoticed, making the interactivity we all come to expect possible at all. In an effort to explain how they work, we’re going to take a look at a few specific real-life examples of APIs in use.

Let’s say you’re looking for a room from a booking website. The site’s form allows you to pick the city you want to stay in, access the check-in and check-out dates, see the number of free rooms, so on and so forth. After you fill out the form, you simply click on the “search” button.

Every booking website aggregates information from a number of different hotels. So when a user clicks on the “search” button, the website connects and interacts with an API from each hotel. This gives the site the exact search results the user is looking for.

Another example is service such as GrabzIt. This is a website screenshots API that allows you to capture high quality images of the website you are viewing.

API Development

While there’s no universal rule that can separate the good APIs from bad ones, there are certain tools and methods you can use to ensure that your API comes out as good as possible. For example, StopLight allows users to speed up the design process 10x.

There are, in fact, a couple of features that can help you determine whether an API is good or not.

  • API Documentation

Practically every project needs a properly documented development and APIs are definitely not an exception to the rule. Every API needs to come together with clear guidelines that will ensure seamless integration with different apps.

  • API Testing

In order to ensure that your API is stable, you need to test it more than a few times. Let’s face it, no programmer out there wants to connect their app to something that’s not completely stable. That’s why API testing is so important.

  • API Encapsulation

You have to be aware that a great API is unseen by the end user of the software it’s integrated with. Just look at it like this – when a person is visiting an online shop, they should only focus on making a purchase. Their user experience will be far more enjoyable without seeing how the whole process is structured and how it functions.

Do You Want to Learn More About APIs?

Those are the basics – now – if you want to know more about APIs, you need to dig deeper. Fortunately, the Internet is full of resources that can help you find out everything you want.

For instance, The New York Times has a great interactive infographic on the matter. The infographic allows you to pick how deeply you want to devolve into the world APIs by scrolling down.

Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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