Lots of jargon and seemingly endless acronyms get batted around in tech these days, and for a non-technical entrepreneur these terms can be confusing. Some, however, are fundamental to how the modern tech ecosystem works, and today we’d like to explain one of the most important: “API.”
APIs Are Fundamental To Modern Software
API stands for “Application Programming Interface,” and that’s exactly what they do – they provide a doorway for one application or service to access the data and services of another.
A great example of this is Facebook’s log in API. Many, many websites and apps offer the ability to log in with your Facebook ID. This makes those websites and apps much easier to use, and the sign up process a lot faster. At the same time, those websites have access to all of your profile information without you needing to re-enter all of it, and of course as the user you can update your Facebook profile and it will automatically change wherever you’ve used Facebook to establish an account.
So the website, let’s call it acme.com, has let you sign in with Facebook. The way this works is that their system takes your Facebook username & password and makes a ‘call’ to the Facebook API. Acme.com will have already programmed this function into their site, so you don’t see the ‘call’ happening, but it gets fired when you hit ‘sign-in.’
The call is written in a standard format, so every caller and every API can understand each other. And when the function is written into acme.com’s code, they will be writing specific instructions for this signing in requirement. Facebook’s system will know what to do with this, and send back the requested information if it all checks out.
APIs Let You Build Amazing Apps, Fast & Cheap
It used to be the case that websites and software services needed to be vertically integrated – you needed to build every button, every little function, every service from scratch. This made it really expensive, slow and risky to develop even simple software.
Over time, developers standardized more and more elements of software so they could avoid re-inventing the wheel, and one major way this is happening is that firms open their services up via API’s. This means you don’t need to re-create those services, and often can benefit from a billion dollar infrastructure for your startup.
Firms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter offer these things for free to add value to their existing users, as you need to have a Facebook profile for that sign-in process to work.
Other firms charge for use of their API, and it becomes a major service delivery channel. What is important to remember, though, is that the cost of integrating these services via API’s is almost always vastly lower than doing it yourself.
The explosion of entrepreneurial activity in the past decade has created a virtual galaxy of API-enabled service providers, for everything from credit checking to search to voice and beyond.
Almost anything you want your website or app to do has been solved by some startup and is offered as an API, which means creating a demo of your idea can often be a simple matter of stringing together API’s, creating a user interface and some basic logic, and presenting it to your first users.
Application Programming Interfaces: the REST
One final explanation – you’ll hear about “RESTful,” or “REST” API’s. These are rapidly becoming the standard, and are talked about because they are much easier to use than their predecessors. These API’s use web standards, with all the power and flexibility that implies, and make the use of other firms’ services within the reach of developers that might not be quite as back-end conversant as in the past.
So in summary, Application Programming Interfaces are increasingly common for startups and established software firms alike, as they allow creation and iteration of new services quickly and cheaply. The broader ecosystem benefits hugely because these allow startups to focus developing their core idea and not spend time building services that have been perfected elsewhere.
Make sure to check out the Stamford Hackathon on Feb. 19-21st, where APIs for our Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence projects will be available.
Also check in with the bi-weekly Developer’s Meetup, where APIs are an ongoing subject.