API's - how do they work and what do they do?

Have you ever wondered how programs on your computer and the websites you visit ‘talk’to each other? The answer is APIs or Application Programming Interfaces.

Websites are built using code. Most big commercial websites keep that code hidden – after all, they’ll have paid a significant sum of money for a fancy website with lots of complicated programming, and they don’t want people stealing it. The exceptions are sites built on ‘open source’ code, which is like a worldwide community of developers who share their notes. The idea is that products and software can be better if lots of people collaborate on a project. Very often that’s true.

What is an API?

An API basically provides a way to plug one website into another. Commercial sites make some parts of their code available to developers so that they can build tools for the site. The code they expose is called the API and the stuff they build – the tools and widgets – are called applications.

APIs themselves aren’t particularly interesting… it’s the application of these tools that really matters.

APIs provide limited outside program access to a specific set of features – often requests for data. APIs clearly define exactly how a program will interact with the rest of the software world– saving time and resources.

Facebook is a good example of the use ofAPIs; several years ago it launched a developer platform called F8 and it now hosts hundreds of thousands of applications from instant messaging to food fight games.

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