What Are APIs? – The Beginner’s Guide

In recent years, more and more public mentions have been made about APIs, especially in connection with major networks like Facebook.

Of course, if you’re not experienced in development, the chances are that ‘API’ won’t mean that much! With that in mind, we’ve written this guide on everything you need to know about APIs.

What are APIs?

So, what does API stand for?

API is short for Application Programming Interfaces. Interestingly, the term is much older than you might think: it was first used back in the 1960s.

So what do Application Programming Interfaces do?

Essentially, an API is the part of a website’s server that receives requests from visitors and returns responses to them.

So, to make an example:

Let’s say you type www.google.com into your search bar and hit the return key.

When you do that, you’re sending a request to Google’s own remote servers, who then receive that response, interpret the code within it and display the page requested.

To your browser – Chrome, Firefox, etc – Google’s server is an API.

So, whenever you visit a web page of any kind, you’re interacting with the remote server’s API.

OK, so why am I hearing more about APIs in the news?

Simply put, APIs have become more well known because technological advances mean we need a lot MORE of them than we ever have.

People are consuming more content and viewing more web pages than ever before, and every single time you connect to a page an API is necessary to ensure the connection.

  • Every email you send
  • Every video you view
  • Every Facebook post
  • Every Tweet
  • Every advert you see
  • Every app you use

And so on. Every single one requires an API of some kind. And with internet use only going up, APIs are going to be referenced more and more over the coming months and years.

Let’s break down the term API in a bit more depth:

Application

The best analogy we’ve seen for the application in this context is on Upwork, who reasonably stated that applications are like an ATM.

You use the ATM to communicate with your bank and do whatever you need to do.  The ATM enables you to do these functions, but in order to do so it has to communicate with both you and your bank.

Applications function in a similar way: they take requests from you and access the relevant information from their host company. Requests can be anything from ‘Play this funny video’ to ‘let me check my credit card balance’.

Programming

Programming is the language used to translate your request and communicate it to the relevant database.

Put simply, coding enables the whole operation to work smoothly.

Interface

The interface is whatever YOU use to complete the request.

In YouTube, the interface is the search bar and the video player. In Facebook, it’s your news feed and the surrounding extra options.

In the case of your ATM, it’s the screen and the touchpad.

Making APIs available

In some cases, larger companies will make their APIs available in order to make it easier for third-parties to build additional tools and apps.

Two great examples of this include Apple’s App Store and Facebook, both of whom have made their own API available to developers.

The result is every single game you’ve ever played on Facebook, from Farmville to Scrabulous!

what are APIs?

There are a number of other business benefits of APIs, though: it’s not just limited to third-party development:

APIs can act as a security doorway

You can choose how much of your base code is made available as part of the API.

Essentially, you can control how much information you want to give people, and the API can act as a key to the relevant code.

APIs let different applications and devices connect

Effective APIs allow for seamless transfer of data between different applications and devices. As a result, any company that builds apps for different purposes will find it easier if they use an API.

It can help to streamline the whole design process, and to minimize compatibility issues.

APIs allow you to build on one design

Once you’ve built one application and have the API in place, it becomes much easier to build another using the same API.

Essentially, APIs allow anyone to use one app as a springboard to construct other.

(If you’ve used a series of software programs by one company and noticed a big similarity in the design and UI between them, they were likely constructed using the same API.)

APIs are universal

APIs standardize access to your code. As you might imagine, people programming apps for Facebook, for example, come from a lot of different backgrounds, speak different languages and work using different equipment.

By using the same API, all of these variations don’t make a difference: the access the developers get is the same, so the results are more uniform.

APIs can be an effective filter

APIs give companies the chance to provide enough access for development to third-parties, without having to provide code that could be exploited to cause a security risk.

If you provide an API, you’ll retain control over your digital assets.  Put simply, they let you decide how much code you want developers to have control over.

You can pull in data from elsewhere

APIs can be hooked up to other, external information, assuming you have permission to use it.

How can this be valuable? Potentially, it can help you retain visitors to your website, giving you a better chance to improve conversions.

Let’s say you’re in the holiday business, and you’re offering a certain amount of spending money as part of the package deal. What if the customer wants to see how much the spending money will amount to in the native currency? They’d need to leave your site to check.

Instead, you could configure your API to pull the latest currency exchange rates right from the most reputable sources. This way, your customers stay informed and you don’t have to worry about updating the information.

what are APIs?

If you’re interested in finding out more about how you can use APIs to benefit your website design or your app, get in touch today. Iconic Solutions would love to help you.