Have you ever heard a developer in the office saying: “Can’t you just use an API for that?” and thought to yourself “What in the world is an API?”
Perhaps you rushed to Google asking what is an API and found yourself drowning in acronyms and unhelpful exposition? Did you think you need some REST after that or some SOAP to clean off the mess that all these acronyms caused in your head?
Don’t worry. Confusion is very common among people that are suddenly asked to know more about terms that have always been restricted to the domain of software engineering.
That’s exactly why we’re writing this article. To help you understand, in plain English, what an API is and what are APIs used for. This article is perfect for sales analysts, marketing specialist, and others that have no programming background but need to learn more about the world of Web APIs.
What Is An API?
The abbreviation means Application Programming Interface and online, you’ll find a lot of vague definitions about what API represents. APIs basically define the rules that programmers must follow in order to interact with a programing language.
However, lately, people have been using this term to describe a particular kind of web interface. This refers to a set of rules we need to follow in order to interact with a web server (ex. Salesforce). The most common outcome of this interaction is data retrieval. This means that APIs provide mechanisms for CRM customers to access and manipulate the data stored by the provider.
Let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say you make a request to a Salesforce web server. The web server accesses the Salesforce database and returns a response to you. This same cycle is applicable to web pages in your browser. The main difference between the two is the data which is provided as a response. A website normally displays an HTML, CSS or JS response, while a web API responds with data in a raw format with JSON and XML being the most common formats used. If you’re wondering why it’s because these two have libraries in nearly all programming languages which makes them a friendly choice for developers.
Now, let’s try to explain this through an example
Imagine you’re searching for a hotel room for your upcoming holiday. You use an online form, choose the city where you want to go, the check-in date, and the number of guests and you click on the search button.
The website aggregates information from different websites through their API that interacts with each hotel website’s API, ultimately delivering results for available rooms that meet your criteria. This sounds like a complex process but it happens in only a few seconds because of an API. The API is basically a messenger that runs back and forth between different databases, applications, and devices.
Which problems do APIs solve?
Computer programs and their use increases day by day and thus, people that never had any formal programming education, are expected to have a higher level of software literacy. This includes sales analysts, marketing specialists, and even HR representatives from the discussion.
More and more companies keep their data in CRM systems like Salesforce and Oracle, “locked behind” their interfaces. Even though they come with their own challenges, APIs help to free the data from the clutches of these interfaces.
You’ll hear most of these companies claiming that their API is super-easy to use. That’s true. Most of them are relatively easy to use. If you’re a programmer. However, if you don’t have basic programming knowledge, this can be a bit challenging. And when sales/marketing representatives don’t know how to interact with it, the people who need the accurate data the most are basically being locked out of accessing it.
Now, if you’re one of these people, you might wonder…
Why do we have to use APIs?
Most APIs are built with an intention to allow 3rd party developers to build applications while using company data. These apps that consume the API data are known as API integrations. Some APIs have the sole purpose to expand the reach of the whole organization by allowing users to use their data and enabling external developers to build products which are somehow (partially) reliant on their organization and in this way, keep making customers come back.
Some other APIs, on the other hand, are sold as a part of a package that’s sold to companies. Businesses that pay for these services see the existence of API as an added value because they can build their own integrations and send and pull data from the cloud to their in-house software systems.
Since APIs simply provide data, there are no limits on how one company can use that data. This means that you can automate these programs to run on a schedule, thus reducing the need for someone to manually import and export the data. As businesses scale up, many of them want to outsource the building such integration because it would take a lot of their employees’ time to interact regularly with a complex and sometimes even frustrating web interface.
One more benefit of Web APIs is that they are built around the Http protocol, hence, almost any programming language can be used to access them. Most programming languages have at least one HTTP library to make this process easier.
As software continues to become even more ubiquitous, it’s very likely that the use of APIs will increase even further, especially as basic programming literacy continues to rise.
Popular API Examples
If you want to see a list of over 15,000 APIs on the web, you can check out ProgrammableWeb. Here are some of the most popular APIs:
- Google Maps API: This API lets developers embed Google Maps on their web pages and work on all devices.
- Youtube API: This API lets users integrate YouTube videos into their websites or applications. The API also includes analytics, Data, and Live Streaming options.
- Twitter API: Twitter has two APIs. REST allows developers to access core Twitter data. The SEARCH API allows developers to interact with Twitter Search and the trends data.
- Amazon Product Advertising: Amazon’s API allows developers to access products on Amazon and advertise them as a part of a website monetization plan.
A few more things you should know
- All APIs begin with shared assets. This can be anything that the company wants to share, from data points to pieces of code and services that a company owns and sees values in sharing.
- The API acts as a gateway to the server. Developers can enter and use these assets to build their own software. However, you wouldn’t want to open up everything to your users. That’s where APIs come in handy, as they allow us to only reveal what we want to reveal.
- The immediate audience of an API is rarely the end user of the app; it’s usually developers who create software around those assets. The API also lets developers use reusable software components and this helps because they don’t need to re-do the work that’s already been done. As a consequence, we get…
- Apps that are connected to data and services, this way providing richer experiences for users. The best part is that API-powered apps are usually compatible with all devices and operating systems.
- The beneficiaries of these apps are the end users. The apps give the end user the flexibility to access multiple apps seamlessly between devices, to interact with third-party apps, and much more.
That’s great! But how reliable are APIs?
With rare exceptions, they are very reliable. However, if an API is available today, it doesn’t mean it will also be available tomorrow. For example, Twitter recently limited the third party use of its API. This move transferred the users of these third-party apps to Twitter in a way that Twitter can monetize the traffic on its own site.
There are other similar examples too, like Memolane and Everyblock, and the services that Google shuts down when they don’t deliver the expected profit estimations (ex. Google Health, Google Reader). When things like this happen, you can end up in a lurch if your application’s functioning depends on those APIs. However, despite all the challenges in the world of API, they still are popular and useful and their usage will likely increase even more in the following years.