To the novice app or internet user, the term API can often seem confusing and more the type of tool that’s used in high-end programming – by equally high-end coders. However, the truth is APIs are prevalent in our digital world – to the point you’ve likely used multiple APIs already today in everything from your email client to your chosen streaming service.
What is an API?
APIs (or application programming interfaces to give them their full name) are the driving force behind many of the world’s most popular websites and applications.
In the simplest of terms, an API is simply a way for different computer programs to communicate with each other – mostly serving, receiving, compiling, and repurposing data for another use. Again, as a simple description, you could think of them as being a software interface that offers a service (or services) to another piece (or pieces) of software.
These communications are all typically handled by an API gateway – but just what is an API gateway? Again, as a basic description, an API gateway acts rather like a manager, receiving requests for components, then compiling the data or services and sending them back to the requester.
Examples of APIs in use – in software or services you likely use daily
Perhaps the easiest way to explain how common APIs are in our digital landscape is to give real-world examples showing how they work. Below are just a few online services that rely massively on this hugely useful tech:
PayPal and other similar online financial services: The world of commerce was turned upside down by the recent coronavirus pandemic, and with enforced social distancing and rules to stay at home, online payment services have never been more popular. However, even before COVID-19, the popularity of paperless payment systems had been growing rapidly – and, of these apps, PayPal has been the undisputed king for many years. To get an idea of how PayPal uses API tech, just think of that pop-up button that appears when you go to check out. This is the front end of the PayPal API.
Streaming music services like Spotify: The chances are pretty high that you already use some form of music streaming like Spotify, for example. The way Spotify allows you to store your favorite tunes in a personal library is a great example of an API at work. However, the software also makes wide use of APIs to serve individual track data, check the info of other users, and bring you other metadata about the music you listen to.
Netflix and other streaming video services: Netflix, by far the world’s most popular video streaming platform, relies heavily on APIs to provide its service. Similar to the example above, the Netflix API stores metadata about shows and even configures the video stream for your intended portable or fixed device.
Google’s huge array of APIs: Google remains one of the world’s most popular, omnipresent firms, and behind much of its services lies an advanced set of APIs – everything from APIs that can serve web pages more quickly to its Google Sheets service, Google Books, Gmail, and its advanced YouTube APIs. Perhaps even better, Google allows third-party developers to use its APIs – so chances are pretty high you’ll be using their service even if you’re not using a Google-branded app or site.