Have you ever thought about how your technology works?
No, not the physical frame of whatever device you use most frequently, but the circuits, chips, and currents that keep your personal computer or phone running. Most people have at least a layman’s knowledge of how their devices are constructed and how their physical components interact with one another, and unless you’re in computer science or engineering, you’re not likely to find that all that interesting. But have you considered why you’re able to use services and systems in conjunction with one another? Why your phone has a prominently displayed weather app that came installed with it and gets data from the Weather channel, or why you’re able to log into accounts on third-party websites through google or Paypal?
While it’s unlikely that you’ll notice, unless you’re looking for it, the applications on your phone or computer are all able to run securely and communicate with each other without the oversight of the creators that made them, sharing data and allowing for a mostly seamless experience when switching from service to service. This more or less automatic cooperation between distinct programs and services is possible through the implementation of application programming interfaces (or APIs), agreements that allow for distinct services to work with each other under specific terms. Few people are aware of the existence of APIs, let alone how essential they are to providing services across a wide variety of industries. Without APIs, nothing in the digital sphere would run as smoothly as it does, and it’s likely that our technology wouldn’t have developed in the same way.
For your consideration, here are a few ways in which APIs are likely present in your own life.
1. Social Media Moderation Services
One way you might have come into contact with APIs is through bots on popular social media sites like Reddit and Twitter. Bots are smaller programs that typically comb through the forums of popular social media sites and administer services that moderators can’t manage themselves for one reason or another. Not all APIs have to be vital to the day-to-day operations of the site, however, bots can also be designed by users of the site, leading to gimmicky or fun interactions with other users. One example of the latter is the Gandalf bot on the Lord of the Rings subreddit, which is programmed to respond to any mentions of the white wizard’s name with quotes from the film series.
2. “Login” and “Pay With” Screens
Whenever one of these screens comes up while browsing a third-party site, you’re experiencing the work of an API. When app or website developers use these kinds of APIs, they’re often trying to make their project more accessible by connecting it to much more established services. Choosing to allow new users to log into a site through Google or to pay through Paypal makes it a lot easier for users who already have accounts on those services to justify using a new one, as they get to avoid the hassle of creating an entirely separate account solely for a new service. Using these APIs can streamline the experience for the user and open a new website up to receiving traffic from a variety of already popular sources.
3. Smartphone Widgets and Apps
You may have noticed that your smartphone comes pre-installed with tools like a weather widget, an app that keeps track of the weather and gets its information from a third-party source. This is also an API, and a common one. Developers will often utilize weather APIs and the like to increase the overall utility of their devices, integrating a wide assortment of potentially useful tools into their operating systems. As a general rule of thumb, if an application on your phone gets data from another source, it is an API.
A Network Operating All Around Us
While you might not have been aware of APIs before, developers have been using them to construct seamless experiences for us for years. Take a moment to thoroughly inspect your tech and see how this hidden network is operating on your behalf: you might be surprised by how many moving parts make up the seamless experiences you get every day.