Have you ever wondered how programs on your computer and the websites you visit “talk” to each other? To understand that, we first have to delve into the weird and wonderful world of APIs, or Application Programing Interfaces.
What is An API?
The phrase API appears regularly in computer-science fields. But what does it mean? Well, definitively put, it refers to a tool, or library, that assists developers in writing code that interfaces with other software. These can range from the low-level tools that allow Windows and OS X applications to use aspects of the underlying operating system, to those powering the apps on your phone. In short, it defines a way in which a computer program communicates with another computer program.
But APIs aren’t inherently interesting. The application of these tools is what really matters. Here’s how APIs are making the web awesome, opening up governments, and increasing consumer choice.
APIs in Business
You might assume that the technology world is inherently cut-throat, with incumbents not wishing to provide a leg-up to the competition. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, many large technology firms, such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, even allow the use of their service by third parties and competitors.
Yes, there’s a genuinely compelling commercial reason why a competitor would release an API, and then have allow anyone to use it. With respect to Facebook and Twitter, we see how third parties have enriched these services with their own code. A great example of this is seen in Klout, which allows developers to measure their social influence, find influential people in their spheres of interest, and schedule Tweets and Facebook postings.
Having an API also allows users and companies to manipulate an existing product to serve their own interests. We’ve covered some incredible examples of this in the past, including the API released by Norwegian startup Appear.in, which allows users to integrate their own HTML5 driven videoconferencing applications within their blogs, websites and applications.
APIs In The Browser
The HTML5 specification has defined what the modern browsing experience should look like – fast, interactive, and with the least plugins possible. Although support for the standard is nowhere near completed, and remains wildly inconsistent across browsers, there’s still an amazing amount of functionality on offer.
The latest functionality in the HTML5 specification makes it easy to create rich, detailed games and animations with Canvas; for websites to store data on the user’s computer, without using cookies; and for websites to determine your location and even determine the battery status on your computer.
To get an idea of the power of HTML5, check out these 5 browser based HTML5 games. My favorite is the the beautiful (and addictive) HexGL.
What you might not know is that these individual components of the HTML5 are largely considered to be APIs in the truest sense. How so? Well, firstly, like all APIs, there’s a published and carefully designed standard of how this functionality of the browser works, and how developers use it.
Much like the Appear.in API, or the Facebook or Instagram API, developers use this standard and functionality in order to make data transactions, like with the IndexedDB API, or to access browser functionality, like with the Canvas API.
The Rise of the API
APIs sound dull, but they’re anything but. They’ve changed the ways governments operate, and they’ve brought an unprecedented range of choice when it comes to how you use the Internet.
What d you thing about Open APis? Tell us in comments below!