101 Series: What Is an API?
Have you ever heard the term “API”? You most likely have, but do you know what it means? API stands for application programming interface, and is defined as “a specification intended to be used as an interface by software components to communicate with each other.” For our purposes here, we are focusing on internet- based APIs.
Companies release an API so other companies can build on top of them. Sometimes this means creating a marketing product, while other times it can simply be the addition of a feature that the original product doesn’t offer. All those apps, games, and custom tabs you see on Facebook? They’re all there due to use of the Facebook API. An API generally adds value to a product because other companies build compelling apps to complement the main product. (Twitpic, for example, was originally built on the Twitter API to enable photo sharing.) However, depending on the terms of service, you may also be able to use an API to create a customized marketing experience for your customers. Occasionally, entire new products and companies can be built on top of an API.
Some interesting apps/sites/products built on top of APIs include:
- Instaprint: a physical printer that will print Instagram photos taken in a specific location or with a specific tag.
- Weeplaces: an app which visualizes your Foursquare and/or Facebook check-ins.
- The Wilderness Downtown: a Chrome/HTML5 interactive music video by Google and The Arcade Fire, which uses the Google Maps API.
- We Are Hunted: an app which tracks and ranks popular and emerging music across blogs, social media, and music services like Spotify.
You can access some popular APIs here:
In short, for general purposes, an API can be termed as “a toolkit that allows you to build upon something.”