What Is an API?

By Alma Martin
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An application programming interface, or API, is a set of tools, protocols, and routines for building software applications. In a nutshell, APIs provide a way for applications to communicate with one another.

Let’s say you use your smartphone to order a cup of coffee ahead of time from your favorite spot on your way to work. After entering your instructions for the perfect blend and pressing send, the coffee shop’s software will engage with your bank’s software to confirm payment. The method in which the coffee shop and the bank “talk” to each other is through an API. This process is handled completely by software and the API, leaving your baristas to craft your beverage and you to simply pick it up and enjoy.

Benefits of APIs for Software Developers

APIs are really important for software developers for a variety of reasons. With APIs, there are more opportunities to integrate with other technologies out there by reducing the complexity in the process. In computer science, there is a concept called abstraction. What it means is that you don’t necessarily need to understand how a piece of software works in order to leverage its capabilities. In the case of APIs, you simply need to know which API (tool) to use to get the job done. As long as you know which API to call, you’ll be able to get a response back in a format that you know is expected.

APIs allow software developers to iterate much faster and be more agile in their processes. If you have used any application where you see a “log in with Facebook” button—you click and you’re logged into a different site—there was a developer behind the scenes that decided to leverage a Facebook API. This reduces system complexity by saving cycles and lines of code. The development team didn’t have to write or create an authentication mechanism in their application.

As a developer, you can decide to integrate with API solutions that are out there. On the flipside, you may decide to create your own APIs and make them available for others to integrate with your solution.

Streamlining the End-user Experience

Going back to the previous example of using a “log in with Facebook” button, APIs also save time for the end user by giving them the option to log into a different application using their Facebook account credentials—they don’t need to create another username or password for this new application. It also allows them to use an interface they are already familiar with. Overall, the user has a more streamlined and convenient experience, which can lead to increased user satisfaction.

How Businesses Can Leverage APIs

APIs help businesses and organizations focus on their core value proposition. If there is a solution that already exists, they don’t have to invest cycles recreating it or organizing a team to build it from scratch. By leveraging existing capabilities in the market, they can focus on the primary value they want to deliver. As mentioned earlier, development teams are able to use existing tools to build certain functionalities into their application, subsequently freeing them up to tackle other deliverables.

APIs are so versatile and useful that some companies are completely founded on an API foundation. For example, Uber, the very popular ride-sharing application, started by leveraging existing APIs to build their workflow and their solution. They leveraged several APIs, including:

  • Google Maps/MapKit for mapping
  • Twilio for messaging
  • CoreLocation for positioning
  • Braintree for payments

They took all these pieces, put them together, and created something that brings value to the market. Now that Uber is off the ground and a mature company, they build their own APIs to market themselves to other organizations that can integrate with their solution. This cycle of innovation continues.

Key Takeaways

  • An API, Application Programming Interface, is how applications communicate with each other.
  • APIs save developers time by using existing code, authentication methods, and more.
  • End users appreciate APIs (even if they aren’t aware of it) because they can have a seamless experience using different software.
  • Driving innovation, APIs have become a business of their own.

Originally published January 30, 2020

About the Author

Alma Martin is a Product Manager at Logi Analytics. She's spent a decade working on business intelligence and analytics projects, and focuses on data management at Logi.