APIs for Newbies: What is an API?

Chap. 1 — With down-to-earth examples to better understand what’s in stake.

Artwork by Phillip Blackowl.

Hum… No, to start with, we will not talk about the sort of beer you are used to ask to the bartender. What we will talk about is what is behind the scene of every web application you are using right now, the standard language used by developers to make applications understand each other (sounds a bit more geeky right? 😅).

APIs: Quick introduction to understand the concept.

API stands for Application Programming Interface and well, we can say that it powers much of what we do online. They are responsible for nearly everything we do on the web. Thanks to APIs, data connects from one place to another, then to your device. And with just a few taps or clicks, you can do things like order a pizza, book a hotel, rate a song or download software.

You may never actually see an API working in the forefront of what you are doing, but there are APIs working all the time, for every app you use or website you visit. The reason you don’t hear that much about the API concept is that it’s a technical stuff that work quietly in the background, making interactivity we expect and rely upon — possible. You cannot see it, but you can be sure about that, it’s everywhere, working all the time.

“Do you wear a Fitbit or Nike FuelBand? Have you ever used the Instagram or Twitter app or bought anything online? Do you use Google Analytics? If you answered “yes” to any of these, you’re already benefiting from APIs!”

Example on how APIs may look in everyday life:

Imagine web platforms like Facebook, Google maps, Youtube or every tech companies are like eating at McDonalds restaurants. Surprising, right? Well, allow me to clarify this parallel. You can access to these companies’ services in two ways:

  1. You can walk straight into the McDonalds restaurant, order food, sits with your friends, wash your hands at the toilets and enjoy the beauty of a nice furnished McDonalds while eating your burger — That’s what you are doing when you access Platform Services in full, by logging in. If you log into Facebook, you can take advantage of a lot of functionalities: Post photos, write on your friends’ wall, read posts and spend quite some time watching viral videos.
  2. Or you can go through the McDonalds drive-through. Doing so, you can eat the same food but you don’t actually have access to every facility of the restaurant — that’s like an API. That’s what you have access when using Platform’s Services APIs. Similarly, if you use the Facebook “Share” button while reading a Linkedin post, you may share this post on your wall but you are not actually having access to all functionalities of the Facebook interface.

APIs kind of unlock the essence of a platform tools without making public all of its source code. And third-party application, just like Linkedin with the post you just shared on Facebook, may use APIs to connect their services with other companies’ services.

APIs: Building your platform using lego blocks from others.

Companies that successfully navigate the digital world are now using APIs as the fuel powering the apps and processes. APIs allow software companies to build their projects quicker.

Why do you think the Unicorns (Uber, Airbnb…) has grown up so quickly? They are using APIs, of course. When you are tech company, if you are looking scalability at a very short, you have to be connected to the existing networks structures. I am talking here to be connected to people, companies, data and tool in an easy, yet obvious way. Here APIs will help you to connect to those existing networks and therefore develop products and services in no-time, while focusing on your core-business and the value added of your offering.

“An API connects your business processes, services, content, and data to channel partners, internal teams, and independent developers in an easy and secure way. APIs are quickly becoming the de facto standard by which companies exchange data and build consistent cross-channel customer experiences.”

Example on how tech companies are using APIs:

Let’s take Google maps as an example. The web mapping service developed by Google is using the Israeli GPS-based traffic information Waze to get and integrate traffic data in their own application. It’s an additional, yet very important feature for Gmaps as it allows its users to benefit from real-time incident reports from Waze. Externalising this feature by integrating a third-party API is also a strategic step for the Google application as it avoid spending years trying to build the technology and a community equivalent to Waze (*Google paid a $1 billion to acquire Waze and avoid any competitive disturbance from the startup).

APIs: A new and yet magical channel of distribution for tech companies.

Ten years ago, if two companies wanted to work together, in a scalable way, they would have needed to get their technical teams in the same room and figure out how to mate their two technologies.

Then came the API.

Major policy drivers for a Tech company to adopt an API strategy:

Releasing software as an API allows Platform services to pursue a number of different adoption routes with many benefits:

  • Only one customer archetype: the developer and usually a frictionless sales process
  • Recurring revenue: very sticky customers due to core integration with the customer’s technology
  • A scalable business model; with a good documentation there is an extremely-low need of support and manual interventions
  • Speedy-product development and time market : with an API first strategy, you are able to deliver services in a very short period of time.


3 key things about APIs I want to remember:

  1. 👍. APIs, for the most part, work on the web. It works behind the scene, you cannot see them but APIs are massively used — in any of the web app you are using right now.
  2. ✌️. APIs make building apps a lot faster. It’s a true time saver. Rather than building something from scratch, it lets you combine existing tools and networks.
  3. 🖖. APIs make business BIG, really big. Why do you think the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) open up an API, why do you think Google does? That’s because now instead of just collecting information when you land on their site, or use their app - they’re collecting information when you are using different sites and Apps. Google Maps can collect information when you use Yelp, not just when you use Google Maps.

APIs are awesome!