As technology continues to progress and integrations become more standard, APIs are becoming a hot topic, it’s important to know exactly what an API does, how they work, and what they are used for.
What is an API?
An Application Programming Interface, or API, is a piece of software that allows two or more computer programs to talk to each other. While customers, consumers, and anyone who uses the Intenet or a smartphone has used countless APIs in the past, you wouldn’t necessarily know it; APIs aren’t meant for the user to see, or notice. They run in the background, connecting webpages and applications.
You can find an example of how APIs are used with a fintech service, like PayPal. PayPal works as an intermediary between the customer and the website they are visiting, like Amazon. Websites that interact with PayPal don’t have access to the customer’s bank or card information. The connection is made by the integration of APIs that connect the customer’s financial information to PayPal, but keep it confidential from outside parties and websites.
How do APIs Work?
Think of an API as a waiter at a restaurant. They take the customer’s order and relay that information to the chef. Then, when the food is ready, they take the food back to the customer. An API does the same thing, just with computer programs and data!
Here’s another example. Let’s say you wanted to check the weather using an app on your phone. When you tap on the app, it automatically uses an API to send your request to the weather database main website. The website gets the request, and in a matter of seconds delivers the information you requested back to the app through the API.
What are the benefits of using an API? What are the setbacks?
The biggest benefit of an API is the fact that it enables apps and webpages to communicate with each other. Without an API, users are left with “application islands”, apps and data that are isolated and can’t be used effectively. APIs are also a great way to gather information quickly, and can be used to even generate bite-sized content such as social media posts or tweets.
In short, APIs make navigating the internet an easier, more streamlined, and more convenient process. This is especially true with smartphones and most apps; without an API most smartphone apps wouldn’t function the same way they do now, and accessing the internet would be a vastly different experience than it is now.
On the other hand, APIs can have their own host of problems and setbacks. One of the biggest being security. Take our earlier example of PayPal. PayPal needs to be extremely secure, since it’s collecting sensitive consumer information including names, addresses, and banking information. Protecting this kind of data requires upkeep and technological know-how.
This exposes another setback to APIs: they require regular maintenance just like any other program. And, some organizations may not have enough developers on-staff to ensure regular service. This can result in APIs that are unreliable and unhelpful because they’re outdated, or APIs that are discontinued due to lack of support.
Another drawback to using APIs is that some sites (such as Google and Amazon) have complete control over their APIs. They can decide what data gets shared, what data gets withheld, or can even discontinue their API entirely if it’s found to be unprofitable.
Ok, so do I need an API?
If your organization needs to find ways to streamline the exchange of information and data and have the tech-infrastructure to support an API, then go for it! If you’re unsure that your organization would be able to keep up with the maintenance an API would require, or are concerned about security, it may be better to do a little more research.
Just like any piece of technology, APIs can be used to greatly improve and streamline your time on the Internet and cut down on both time and energy spent doing mundane, routine tasks. But, just like any piece of technology, it can be misused and ultimately be more trouble than its worth. Ultimately, the only ones who can determine if your organization will benefit from an API are you, dear blog-reader, your IT team, and any other key stakeholders in your organization.