What Is An API

Have you ever wondered what API really means and what it's supposed to do? Find out in this post.

If you are new to programming, you will have heard this word, ‘API’ being thrown around. In this post, I hope to provide a simple explanation of what it means.

Firstly, we have to define what API stands for. It is not a single word, but rather an acronym (A word formed by combining the initial letters of a multipart name). It simply means Application Programmable Interface.

Okay, that’s all nice and neat. We’ve basically just ‘expanded’ the word. We only know what the word/acronym stands for but we don’t know what it is.

To understand this ‘word’ properly, we have to go back to the early days of the ‘interweb’ when programs were being developed for computers that had specific tasks only. These computers then had to have operators (people like us newbies) collect the output of this computer (usually it was some form of code) and input it into another computer (more code writing) that would carry out the next task. And this new computer was one of many in a chain of computers in a business.

Put it this way, if your business was baking bread and selling it, you would have a few computers in your business chain of operations. The first computer would get the ingredients and an operator would input that into the machine. The next computer would be programmed on how to mix the dough. The next one would be programmed on how to monitor the oven temperature. The last computer would monitor the sales and give you an idea if you were going bankrupt or not.

Can you imagine how crazy it was back then to get a finished product when each computer program was written in another code language and you had to take that code output and place it into another program that was written in another code language? Guess what? It’s still happening right this moment.

Now we know the need of API’s but still we need to apply this ‘word’. So, the first word, ‘Application’ means the programs that need to talk to each other. The word ‘Programmable’ means the code function that takes place to make communication possible and the word ‘Interface’ is how we will connect and talk to each application in the chain in a proper format. The image below shows you a chain link. Think of it as the API that speaks between two programs which have different code outputs.

API Link chain
If only I held my life together like this link.

So for an API to work, we need devices or programs that will need to talk to each other. And they will do so in an agreed form of communication. This is called a ‘Protocol’. I won’t go into the many forms of protocols for APIs, but as long as you know that an API needs a standard communication format. This is where JSON comes in handy, one protocol. It stands for JavaScript Object Notation.

You can create your own APIs by following this communication format and thereby allowing your own programs to talk to each other and provide you the results and make changes to each other. To ensure that nobody intercepts this communication between your programs without your permission, a ‘key’ is created to provide security. Only if the key is recognized by your API and its programs, will communication take place.

Conclusion:

  1. The word ‘API’ is actually an acronym for Application Programmable Interface.
  2. In short, an API is technically a program that acts like a converter or an interpreter between two or more programs that need to talk between each other when they have different code outputs/language outputs.
  3. An API needs to follow a standard communication format which JSON is one of them.
  4. API’s have saved many a programmer’s sanity and life.

I hope this was helpful. If you know of anything that I may have missed, please let me know in the comments below.

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