beanz Magazine

What is an API?

Ted Eytan, MD on Flickr

APIs can be a fun, easy to use, and easy to learn way to retrieve and mash up data online.

Chances are you either don't know what an API is or you have heard of it but don't know how it works. It's a mysterious technical something. In reality, APIs are easy to understand and easy to use. They make a fun project if you have time to play around, and they might even be useful. While APIs can be complicated, like any technology, the internet and web use of APIs is not difficult to understand.

The acronym API stands for Application Programming Interface. That was easy, wasn't it? Actually the "application" and "interface" bits are somewhat self-explanatory. But together the phrase doesn't mean much.

APIs allow one bit of software to talk and exchange information with another bit of software.

The best way to understand APIs? Think of this website: this page you're looking at is an interface and the publishing software that generated the page you're reading is an application. What if there was another way, another interface, to grab the data on this page? An API is another way to ask for and get data more often presented in more familiar ways, for example, as a web page or data displayed in a software application on your computer. Google, Twitter, and countless online applications provide an API as an additional interface to their data.

What makes web or internet APIs important? Most web applications you use today could not function without a standard way to request and exchange information across the internet and stored on computers in data centers. A good API makes it easy for people to use your software and create other applications from your data.

Because the internet is everywhere, URLs are the most common way to interact with an API. If you don't know, here's a URL:

 

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