What Your Business Needs To Know About APIs

30 Nov 2018

Image credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi

The digital world has been very generous to our vocabularies, gifting them numerous fresh technical terms (many of which are acronyms or initialisms). Unfortunately, they frequently lead to confusion, not least because people very easily fall into the habit of thinking that sounding technical is inherently meaningful, useful, and laudable.

So if you’ve heard of APIs but never had a strong grasp of what they actually are — or why anyone would, or should, care about them — then you’re not alone. But they’re not just buzzword material. APIs are truly important, and they’re getting more so with every passing day, so it’s a good time to learn about them.

To that end, let’s take a look at what APIs consist of, why you should care about them, and what you can take away from this to help your business.

What is an API?

API stands for “Application Programming Interface”, and it’s an essential part of digital connectivity. It’s surprisingly tricky to establish a clear and simple concept of what an API does, but let’s give it a shot through a basic scenario and see how we do:

Imagine that you develop a cloud storage solution. You have a front-end panel, but prospective customers tell you that they don’t want to use it — they want to be able to access, change or delete their files from their own software, using your service but not your interface.

How do you go about this? You can’t give them direct access to your internal system, obviously. Even if you could somehow trust them with that kind of power, they might not be able to understand the code, and you’d near-certainly end up needing to fulfil their requests for them.

They need a greater level of access to your system, and you need it to be possible without endangering your overall system or requiring you to get personally involved. That’s precisely what an API is for.

The API sits as a layer on top of your system, mapping complex internal operations to simple and (comparatively) user-friendly functions with clear parameters. You then release that full set of API functions to your customers, allowing them to figure out how to map their software outputs to those functions.

Once the mapping has been figured out, they can easily access your system to accomplish whatever they need doing. They generate requests meeting the API’s parameters, and those requests get passed by the API to the system which then fulfils them, passing any outputs back to the API to be shuttled back to the customers.

If a strained metaphor would help, you could look at an API as a cross between a mediator and a bouncer. It allows drastically different software systems to communicate on common ground, and diligently prevents unauthorised access.

Why do we need to talk about APIs?

To understand why APIs are so important, you need only think about apps, or services, or even pieces of internet-capable hardware. The appeal of such things is that they can be accessed and controlled in various ways from elsewhere and from multiple systems or devices — and APIs make this possible. Without them, the much-vaunted Internet of Things (IoT) and the entire Unified Communications field simply wouldn’t be possible.

Let’s look at an example: Twitter wants to be involved in as many things as possible, which requires allowing people to do more sophisticated things than simply create some manual posts, so it has released a set of Twitter APIs. Those who want to integrate their systems with Twitter can study those APIs and figure out how to call Twitter functions as needed.

Consider the wide-reaching integrations that we use every single day. Try using the share function on a modern smartphone and see how many choices you’re presented with — that level of unification is hugely enticing. You could share through Facebook or Skype, save to Google Drive or Dropbox, or send to a specific contact drawn from one of several application-specific contact lists. All of that is possible through APIs.

The need for broad compatibility also drives system choices in every corner of the online world. Reusing assets has become more cost-effective than starting fresh because standard systems constitute known quantities and offer legacy support. Writing frequently about the ecommerce world, I see this increasingly frequently with entrepreneurs: many look at businesses for sale instead of working from the ground-up because there’s little sense in creating a complex system that will then struggle to integrate with anything.

What (if anything) should you do about APIs?

Firstly, as a business with an interest in Unified Communications, you need to understand the basics of APIs that we just covered. It’s vital that you’re aware of how important they are, and broadly how they function, because you’ll be working with countless APIs in the future and they’re only going to become more prevalent (even as they become less visible through slicker implementation).

Beyond that, it really depends on what your business does. If you provide a software service of some kind, you’ll already have understood what an API is, but you might not have fully considered how important they’re becoming. Your customers want choice and flexibility. If you’re not currently providing an API for your system, it will be considered less worthy of investment by forward-thinking companies.

If you don’t do anything in the development field, however, then you should take a close look at the software systems you use to see what more (if anything) you could be doing with them. You’ll likely find that many of the systems you rely on have comprehensive APIs available, and by learning more about them you might discover that you could be getting more done.

Usefully, there are numerous online resources for discovering new APIs. Try looking through the ProgrammableWeb directory, and learning more about IFTTT, a service for integrating common systems — it’s particularly handy because most common APIs are compatible with it.

Victoria Greene is an ecommerce marketing expert and freelance writer who wishes she could implement a personal API to save communication time. You can read more of her work at her blog Victoria Ecommerce.