What is an API?

Knowing what an API is and what it does is important. So in this article we are going to answer the question: “What is an API?”

If you spend any time dealing with web development or programming, you are eventually going to hear the term API. To the uninitiated, it can seem to be quite a complex term. But really, it’s not. It’s actually fairly simple!

What is an API in Simple Terms?

API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” Sounds complex, right? Well, don’t worry; it’s not. An API is a program that works behind the scenes between the user of a website and the website itself. It does this seamlessly, in the background, so that the user doesn’t even notice. Neither do the owners of the website itself. But while the user won’t notice the API, he or she will notice the results.

Here’s a metaphor for an API: When you go out to eat, you look at a menu and decide what you want. But you don’t go to the kitchen yourself. Instead, you ask a waiter or waitress. He or she then goes to the kitchen, places your order, and brings it to your table.

In essence, the website you are visiting is the kitchen, you are the user, and the waiter or waitress is the API.

In real life, you can see how this works. Imagine you want to go to a concert. You go to the website and find the show you want to see. When you place your order, an API will contact the bank and make sure your card is good. It will then tell the website whether or not to honor your card. Then if it’s a go, you’ll get your tickets.

You don’t notice the API; you just know you got your tickets. The website doesn’t notice the API; it just knows that your card is good.

Like little ghosts in the background, APIs get the real work of websites done.

What is an API and How Does It Work?

The most important thing to understand about an API is that it is discreet. It takes a small bit of data from the initial user, but does not leave their computer or device exposed. It then accesses a small bit of data from the website, but does not leave the website exposed. It just takes what it needs, and then brings back what is required.

This makes APIs a safe and secure way to transmit data. So much so that websites often treat them like products that they can sell or give away to developers to help make their own offerings better!

For example, say you wanted to offer a guide app to the most famous wine cellars in Paris. You’d want to include directions from Google Maps in order to make the app as user friendly as possible.

Luckily, Google offers an API for Google Maps that allows you to embed it into your guide. That way, you don’t have to make a complex program to access Google Maps. You simply insert Google’s API into your code, and the link to and from Google Maps is there.

This is obviously good for you. But it’s also good for Google, because it means when people access their maps they are doing so the right way. And in the end, it’s good for your customers, because they end up with a working app.

The “productization” of APIs has made them have much stronger levels of discipline for security and governance than most programs. That’s because you don’t want the processes working in the background to fail, driving every website that uses your apps to a halt.

In a nutshell, that’s what an API is. It connects websites to consumers in an invisible, friendly way, and in general makes the internet run.

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