When trying to understand an application programming interface (or API), it's best to define each word before tackling the larger concept. First, most people know that an application is a program downloaded onto our smartphones, tablets, and computers. It can be a fun puzzle game, a maps tool, or a social network that keeps us connected to friends around the world. Next, programming is the engineering used to create every app, website, and operating system. Without programming, an app is just an idea. Finally, interfaces make it possible for two apps to talk to each other, and gather information that the other app doesn't have.
What is an API?
Now that you understand the terms, what is an API? Put simply, an API allows programmers to gain access to another application, for the benefit of their own project. Some apps have already mastered certain problems, so why bother trying to invent the wheel twice?
How does an API connect two apps?
Think of an API like the next-door neighbor that you ask for sugar. Whenever you need to use another app's technology, you have to talk to the API using a shared language. Essentially, the API works as an intermediary between the two apps, passing along the first app's request, and then returning data from the second app. Programmers only want other companies' apps to have access to certain data (i.e. embedded maps, or a Twitter feed), so APIs set clear boundaries about what is accessible.
Why are APIs great for business?
APIs allow programmers to harness all of the resources at their disposal, so they can realize their ideas faster and bring them to market. Without access to Google Maps, YouTube, Twitter, or Amazon, many new app ideas would be impossible to execute. At the same time, APIs also benefit larger companies, because it allows them to spread their influence across multiple platforms. Giant corporations like Google also earn money when other companies use their APIs, because they have to pay for a monthly plan. All in all, APIs are a great tool for new startups and established players, which is why there are over 15,000 APIs in existence today.
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