What is an API?

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a general term for how computer programs communicate.  This includes sending data across the Internet or accessing the camera on your phone.

Term breakdown:

  • Application: another name for a computer program.
  • Programming: other developers can write programs to use this.
  • Interface: the other program can interact with the API.

One example of an API that you might use every day is the iOS API for iPhones and iPads.  At the time of writing, the current version is iOS 11, and general information on the APIs are available here.  This allows software developers to write apps for Apple’s devices, and use the camera, microphone, or speaker.

Have you noticed how the map on almost every website and app look the same?  You can thank the Google Maps API. Google has made their mapping software available to developers, and it has become ubiquitous to the point where if a map isn’t theirs, it looks weird.

Combining these two is the Uber app.  Uber is a ridesharing company (which may be featured in a future article) that connects drivers and riders.  The iPhone app uses the GPS in the phone to determine your location, then shows where you, and nearby cars, are on a Google Map.  Uber didn’t have to create maps from scratch, or build a GPS device – they were able to use the APIs made available by other companies.

Some APIs are available free to the public, some are a paid service, and some are private within organizations.  They can be a great way to write software that integrates with a device, or create something new without reinventing the wheel (or, map).

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