What are APIs and why they are important?

You may have heard the term API on the news. They’re often mentioned because they can have a huge effect on developers and companies that use them. For example, Venmo recently changed the way developers have access to their API, which was to end all access to it. Why does this matter? What are APIs? Why are they important for developers and companies to use?

API stands for Application Programming Interface. APIs are important, because they provide a way for developers to access information from another application through a series of requests. For example, one could build a custom application and include the ability for users to login to the app (a very common use case is using the Facebook API for user authentication). Building custom login functionality can be very time consuming and can even be dangerous, allowing hackers to break into users accounts if the application does not encrypt passwords correctly. You can access Facebook’s API to authenticate logins for you. This saves the developers a lot of time and is a lot safer to do because Facebook has the resources to make sure that their authentication process is very secure. You don’t only use APIs when you want to add a feature that offers security, but also when you want to access a lot of data to be included on your site. Lets say you want your users to see the most popular Instagram posts in their neighborhood. You would not want to enter in all that information yourself, right? Imagine trying to keep track of all the photos manually from Instagram and keeping up with images when they change or when new ones are added. Rather than keeping track of everything yourself you can make a request to the Instagram API from your application and if you are granted access to the Instagram API you will get back the data you need. Then you will be able to parse through that data and display it to your user.

When Venmo removed developer access to their API this was very bad news for anyone that was using Venmo in their application. Companies might have been relying on Venmo’s API to handle how money was exchanged between users. When Venmo removes their API it breaks applications that are using it. The applications built with this API then have to look for other alternatives.

A real-life example about a company that was greatly affected by an API is TwitPic. TwitPic was an application that allowed users to post photos to the Twitter microblogging service. The company was very successful about eight years ago. They were so reliant on Twitter’s API that when Twitter started to restrict access to their API the company was forced to shut down. TwitPic was not the only one very upset over Twitter’s decision to restrict access to their API. Many developers were upset with Twitter because they were no longer able to build the applications they wanted (http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/19/this-is-business-not-personal/). A lot of companies want developers to use their APIs because it will drive traffic to their sites and applications. Twitter is trying to reach out to developers so they start using their API again, but their relationship is now strained (http://techcrunch.com/2015/10/21/twitter-ceo-dorsey-apologizes-to-developers-says-he-wants-to-reset-relations/).

APIs are an important part of building fully functional, safe, and dynamic applications. Without APIs we would not have all the amazing applications we have today (https://instaprint.me/). When you use an API make sure you’re well informed about the rules and regulations regarding that API. You can even set up alerts so if that API changes you will get a notification and can make adjustments to your application if needed.

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