APIs, or application programming interfaces, are everywhere today, and for the most part, they function seamlessly behind the scenes of some of the most prominent technologies of the modern era.
Their ubiquity makes learning a little about them worthwhile, so here’s an overview of the basics behind building an API and some examples of how they’re harnessed in various contexts.
Introduction to API design
With an API, you can allow separate apps to share data with one another, essentially allowing the functionality of one service to be tapped into by another.
There are various steps involved in putting together an API of your own, and certain concepts to get to grips with, such as:
Core API design principles
In addition to API design best practices, there are principles that must be applied to all projects in order to achieve success.
For example, you need to decide on an approach to development that suits your needs, skills, and preferences. A code-first approach will see you apply the requirements of your organization to the implementation of the code, while a design-first approach involves outlining the features and functions from start to finish prior to delving into the actual coding.
Various API architectures are out there already, giving you the framework around which to base your own design. This includes the likes of REST and SOAP, so for the most part, you won’t really need to worry about starting completely from scratch.
A plethora of API design tools exists, giving you the ability to build what you need through both free and paid services that streamline much of the process.
Lastly, it’s worth touching on the idea that you don’t need to bother developing a distinct API if one has already been built to fulfill the same purpose by another individual or organization.
It’s more efficient to piggyback on the groundwork laid by someone else than start all over on your own, so researching available APIs is one of the best ways to begin designing your own.
Impressive API implementations
Now you’ve got a grounding in API design, let’s talk about the ways they’re being used today, with head-turning deployments such as:
Mapping & navigation
There are myriad location-based apps and services out there, but not every one of these has access to its own set of GPS data. In fact, the vast majority tap into mainstream resources to serve users, such as Google Maps and a number of competitors.
Once the location information is available, it’s possible to create a custom experience based on where each user is in the world. This is especially handy for things like retail, where pinpointing nearby bricks and mortar locations for prospective customers to visit becomes achievable.
The rise of AI-powered image recognition platforms has led to all sorts of intriguing applications, and with the help of APIs, it’s not necessary for individual developers to make their own tools to analyze digital photos.
Services like CloudVision, Clarifai, Imagga, and Cloudmersive all jostle for position in this market niche, making it possible for apps to integrate impressive image recognition abilities without having to build this natively.
This can be useful for straightforward archiving and searching of image files, as well as for things like on-site security and threat detection.
Managing multiple CNC machines simultaneously is easier if you’re able to do so via a unified client, and there are APIs that set out to make this a possibility.
There are also solutions that are capable of handling the conversion of CAD files to CNC code, allowing for a degree of automation and taking a lot of the legwork out of the process.
Services like SolidWorks have their own APIs available for this reason, and so there are ample opportunities for cross-pollination depending on what you want to get done.
Music & video
Plenty of popular music streaming platforms affords third parties access to their in-house data through APIs, with Spotify being perhaps the most prominent example.
So if you want to put together an app that includes information on specific musical artists or songs, or pulls down user-created content like playlists, then that’s simply done with the help of API calls.
The same applies to video streaming sites such as YouTube, where third-party integrations are widely harnessed to expand the potential of other apps and services.
Perhaps the most prominent and frequently encountered use of APIs comes courtesy of social media services. All sorts of developers choose to add social integrations within their own apps and websites so that it’s easier for users to share their experiences with others and spread their content far and wide as a result.
This is probably why you’ll find social capabilities baked into almost everything these days, even if it’s not immediately obvious why such integrations are needed in the first place.
When it comes to handling transactions, it’s better to rely on an established third-party payment platform than try to process everything on an in-house system.
Thus APIs which deliver safe, secure payment potential to every e-commerce site and app are widely used right now.
Top players like PayPal are leading the field here, and as well as helping businesses to keep transactions swift and secure, it’s also about building trust with customers.
One of the best things about APIs is that they’re very flexible and also fairly scalable, especially when it comes to cost.
Developing your own API is an option, and with the tools and frameworks out there, it doesn’t have to be too taxing.
It’s equally viable to simply find an existing API to leverage when creating an app or service, whether it’s for internal use or intended to supply customer-facing functionality.
APIs are used across all industries, and it seems certain that their influence will only continue to grow as the world becomes a more connected, tech-focused place in the future.