API for beginners. A simple introduction.

You keep hearing this term but what does it really mean? How do we define API? What is its use?

Definitionally, API means “Application Programming Interface”. Although, that might sound like a simple definition its still a bit vague sounding to people who need a plain English explanation of things.

When you go to a companies webpage using your web browser you type in an address and the browser sends a request to the relevant remote server that the website is stored on. Your browser then receives a response, interprets and presents you with the webpage.

In that instance the company website you reached out to was an API. An API isn’t the server itself but the part of it that takes requests and responds.

API as a mechanism for serving customers

Here is an example, what if you had a form on your website which is meant to sign people up for an appointment, and it also created a Google Calendar event? Your website could talk directly to Google Calendar, it would then receive the response and reveal the necessary information to the customer. This is nice because it allows your customers to complete tasks elsewhere on the internet without ever leaving your website.

When we talk about a company providing an API all we mean is that the company we are describing has set up some dedicated URL to return data without the need of a graphical interface. In the above example Google was connected to by our own server and information was sent and retrieved in an automated way. Often the data we get will be in a format like JSON. Raw data without the need for a user interface is exchanged between our server and Google and tasks are completed rapidly or more conveniently in this manner.