What is an API: Definition, Types & Uses

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APIs are intertwined with almost every aspect of modern digital services, and yet you might not know what they are, let alone having an understanding of how they are used.

To clear this up, here is an overview of API technology as it stands today, including some examples of what APIs can be harnessed to achieve.

The basics

As you might have gathered, API is an initialism which stands for application programming interface. Of course on its own, this string of 3 words does not go far enough towards demystifying the meaning for the layperson.

Rather than delving into the complexities of a technical explanation of APIs, it is simpler to think of them as a means of providing developers with access to information and features of an existing system, so that they can be integrated elsewhere without needing to start from scratch.

The varieties

If you are still not quite convinced that you know what APIs are, then an introduction to the different categories of functionality they cover should help.

Weather APIs are amongst the most widely used and diverse in terms of the kinds of data they make available. There are APIs in this category which focus on delivering forecasting capabilities, as well as those that offer access to historic weather data. There are even weather APIs which put imaging at the top of the agenda, demonstrating how flexible this technology can be.

Developers who are collaborating on code can also pick and choose from a cavalcade of other APIs. There are options for those who want to add navigation and location-based features to an app or website. There are travel-focused APIs which allow user reviews, flight prices and amenity information to be distributed and updated in real time across a whole host of applications. There are APIs which target industries as varied as finance, farming, real estate and everything in between.

If there is some system or service out there, chances are that it has its own API. Whether or not this is publically available is another question, although plenty of companies choose to license their APIs so that they can be harnessed by third parties. There are even unofficial APIs that have emerged to capitalize on demand.

The uses

As touched on earlier, APIs are an effective tool for allowing apps to interact with one another, adhering to rules which allow information to flow freely between them and thus allow unique solutions to be developed more efficiently and at a lower cost.

For example, say a travel company wanted to develop an app which allowed customers to check the availability of accommodation, the cost of airport transfers, the current temperature and weather conditions at their desired destination and even the location of attractions in the surrounding areas. Adding all of these features would be a challenge for most firms if they were operating alone, but APIs mean that such functions are available with minimal overheads because the data required to power each can be pulled from outside sources.

This only really touches on the consumer-facing functions of APIs, but it is also worth noting that they are also in widespread use internally by businesses that have built their own apps and solutions designed solely for the benefit of their own employees. The fact that the market for cloud-powered APIs is growing rapidly at the moment shows that other technologies are helping to fuel the evolution and expansion of this technology. APIs have helped to create some of the most successful tech titans of the past decade and their use will continue to shape this sector going forward.

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About Annabel Johnson

Part time gamer, reviewer and blogger. Full time geek and tech expert!

View all posts by Annabel Johnson

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