Understanding APIs

Recently, a client wanted us to build a custom newsfeed for their corporate site showing curated headlines from Bloomberg news. As we reviewed the design and customization options, they had heard us use the acronym “API” enough times that they finally asked, “what is an API?”

“API” stands for “Application Programming Interface,” and if you have ever discussed integrating a third-party technology service into your own website, internal networks, proprietary databases, or software, odds are that you have heard the term a lot. Although it sounds like obtuse techno-speak, the concept is easy to understand.

APIs are awesome. They provide you with a set of pre-built, out-of-the-box building blocks that you can customize in ways that promote your brand, engage your customers, and take further advantage of tools and technologies you have already invested in.

A frequently used example is the relationship between a customer, menu, waiter, and chef in a restaurant. The chef has a menu of dishes that they are prepared to cook. The customer selects an item from the menu and communicates that selection to the waiter who then provides instructions to the chef. Once the chef has completed the dish, the waiter retrieves it from the kitchen and serves it to the customer.

The waiter (and the menu) serves as the “interface” between the customer and the chef. So the “API” in this example is the waiter and the menu. See the illustration below (courtesy of MuleSoft and VISA).

Carrying the example further, note two additional things. First, what if the customer ordered something that wasn’t on the menu? Well, the request would have been sent to the kitchen, and the chef would have denied the request because it was outside of the defined parameters. Just like if you go to ESPN.com and search for “what’s my bank account balance,” you are unlikely to get a meaningful response.

Second, the customer doesn’t need to know how the dish was prepared – they just want their beef bourguignon to be delicious. All of the things that happen behind the scenes – the selection of cookware, utensils, ingredients, stove settings, cooking temperatures, etc. – happen, well, behind the scenes. By using a bridge, or interface (the waiter and the menu), the cook can be more efficient by serving more customers, and customers can receive their meals in a more timely manner.

Odds are that you are already using APIs in some form in your business. If you have an interactive Google Map on your website (showing your office locations), you are using a Google Map API. If you sell products and/or services online, you are almost certainly using APIs for payment processing and security. News and data feeds from third-party providers use APIs, and if you are receiving updated analytics on your website or landing pages, they are most likely being processed by an API (Google Analytics API being the most common one).

We have developed some combination of the examples above for most of our clients. We have also used the Google GeoLocation API to show nearby stores that carry our client’s products based on the user’s location. We’ve set up an Amazon affiliate program that allows the client to present a specific range of Amazon products on their own site with prices and availability updated in real-time. As we demonstrated earlier, we are also using Amazon Polly for real-time, natural text-to-voice processing.

APIs are awesome. They provide you with a set of pre-built, out-of-the-box building blocks that you can customize in ways that promote your brand, engage your customers, and take further advantage of tools and technologies you have already invested in.

You probably use many of the services below in your business. If so, consider how you can leverage these to build your app (and let us know how we can help!).

  • Amazon Alexa Voice Service
  • Black Diamond Wealth Platform API
  • Box Platform API
  • E*TRADE API
  • Facebook API
  • FactSet On Demand Dev Toolkit
  • Google App Engine API
  • Google Assistant SDK
  • Google Geolocation API
  • Google Visualization API
  • IBM Watson API
  • News API
  • Pershing NetX Services
  • Salesforce SOAP API
  • Thomson Reuters App Studio
  • Twitter API
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