What is an API?

November 2, 2015

The New York Times recently published an article titled “What is an API?” To be clear, the article was a paid post from a global technology company seeking new clients but offered an important question to consider about how software works. Today, we dive into the question of “What is an API?”

The acronym stands for Application Programming Interface. An API is an interface that allows systems to “talk” to one another and exchange information behind the scenes. You may not realize it but you are likely interacting with an API right now as you read this. The website interacts with a database and feeds you content. If you’re like me, you may have recently made a purchase online, called for an UBER, or made a reservation from your iPhone – all of which use an API.

In 2000, there was only 1 Web API tracked in ProgrammableWeb’s (PW’s) database. Today, in 2015, there are nearly 14,000 (thirteen-thousand nine-hundred and thirteen to be exact and unnecessarily long-winded). Of course, it is estimated that 90% of Web APIs are private and not listed in PW’s database. So, that number is likely much greater. However, if you’re in the mood to impress someone tell them that “Twitter makes more than 15 billion API calls daily. Netflix, Google, and Facebook each make 5 billion each day.” Wow, you just impressed me!

A company can leverage APIs to expose powerful data from internal legacy systems. The data can be used to help improve the customer’s experience, drive revenue, and cut the cost of innovation. For example, imagine your manufacturing company is looking to improve inventory management. By solving this problem you could help the company save millions of dollars in overhead and reduce the time to ship your product to your customer. You have a conversation with your colleague (let’s call him Bill) and he says he has all of that data “up here” and points at his head. Not helpful Bill.

You dig further and realize that most of your inventory is currently in several spreadsheets. There is one database for the product specs, one for the inventory, one for the shipping schedule, one for the financial data, and one for the customer relationship management (CRM) data. If you could only have a way for all of these systems to talk to each other. And then it hits you – writing an API to interface with all of these databases would allow you visibility to solve your problem. Hats off to you! You are on your way to helping your company by using an API.

In conclusion, APIs play an important part of your everyday life. Next time you find yourself interacting with an API, I hope you’ll think of this post and write me a letter through the U.S. Mail with a real stamp. Because when you do, I will have the opportunity to explain how the U.S. Postal Service uses APIs and we can become pen pals for years to come. Until that day, I wish you all the best.

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