Written by Web Success Team Contributor Steve Dwek
When it comes to understanding developing technologies most articles tend to start with a technical description that gets glossed over and gradually move towards something less technical so that the reader eventually gets the gist of the message. For API’s – Application Programming Interfaces, this article tackles the subject in a different manner – starting simple and moving complex so that relevant details don’t get lost.
What is an API?
Imagine a world filled with robot helpers – from your gardener to your maid to your cook. Now imagine in this world you’re starving for some pizza but the only way to get it is to have your robot cook go to the store, pickup the ingredients and cook them in the exact appropriate manner. You might have an inkling on how to make good pizza but your robot cook sure as heck doesn’t, and so he (or it) is going to need a complex set of instructions explaining what to buy and how to cook it; a recipe book. These instructions represent an API – the details on how to make the pizza weren’t given by you, the user, they were instructions in the recipe book that explained to your robot chef what to do.
When you post your business address on your website with a Google-map of your location you’re using an API. You’re asking your website to go to Google and ask Google for instructions (the recipe) on how to build a map of your location.
But API’s are more than just recipes, they really represent the entire universe of “application-to-application” interfaces. They are programs talking to other programs (as opposed to users talking to programs). Online shopping is an example of multiple API’s at work. As a user you only see the “buy now” button, but in the background the website is talking to your credit card company through an API, verifying your information is correct, and once the sale is completed the credit card company sends a response back which tells the website to process the sale.
APIs can also present themselves in very simple forms. When you use a math program and call upon a function to perform any sort of mathematical operation you’re using an API. Regardless of their complexity APIs represent the removal of the human component between machines, and it is this fundamental feature. This has significant implications for the future of technology, particularly in regards to business.
API’s and Business
There’s a de-motivational saying in business “If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.” (courtesy www.despair.com). It used to be when you bought a stock you’d have to call up your broker, who would then call his company representative on the stock exchange, who would then find a seller of that stock and repeat the order back to you. Nowadays with online discount brokerages the process has completely changed and several steps of a middle-man have been replaced by APIs (or ‘robots’ if you will) that cut out all of these middle tasks. As the complexity of the requests from APIs along with their capabilities increases it is only a matter of time before most unnecessary “middle-men” steps become redundant in the process. Here is an example:
The “live” shopping experience currently works like this. You go in a store and browse, a salesperson helps you out, you take your merchandise to the checkout counter where the cashier rings you up, takes your credit card and processes the sale. But the only reason you currently can’t check yourself out is because you simply don’t know how to use the cash register and process your own credit card payments yourself. If it was easier – say through your phone, and all you needed to do was scan the item and an API would connect with the stores internal register then you wouldn’t need a cashier at all; he/she simply functions as another interface between the user and technology in an unnecessary manner. The salesperson is still needed to help tell you that dress makes you look 20lbs thinner, but the cashier isn’t.
The future of APIs – applications interacting with other applications – as a complex way to simplify our lives is unavoidable. Adding additional layers of interaction amongst various programs not only makes our lives easier but it makes new technology easier a well. Consider Facebook APIs. If a game ever requests access to your information you’re seeing a Facebook API at work – The same goes for social graphs and even advertisements. These API allow others to use important Facebook features without having to program them themselves, which means they can focus on building new technology and processes without having to re-build what others have already done in the past. Much like stones in a pyramid, once someone accomplishes the hard work at one level, we only need to worry about the next step afterwards; it is by this process the speed at which new technology develops evolves so rapidly.
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