What is an API and Why You Might Need One

There is a lot of buzz and innovation stemming from the rise of APIs these days so I wanted to dig in deeper to learn more.  The following is a guest post by Steven Willmot, an expert in the API arena and CEO of 3scale – a company that provides API management services.

I asked Steven if he could shed some light on what is an API and why you might need one. Here’s what he had to say…

Today’s web is 95% about web pages of one sort or another – content sites, ecommerce site or web apps which allow you to get things done. Running a great sight or service means getting people to your site and keeping them there (SEO ninjas wanted here!). However, what about this other 5%? It turns out there is another kind of web emerging which is pretty different – one which is driven by access to the raw data and services on the Web without
all the graphics and layout of a normal web page.

This way of delivering content and services is an API (Application Programming Interface) – basically it allows sites to allow others to access the raw form of what they do it and:

  • reformat it any way they want.
  • mix it up with their own or other content.
  • deliver it into apps other than a browsers (including iPhone or Android mobile apps or desktop widgets).

There are now plenty of sites that do business almost 100% via their API and have no real “Web Pages” to speak off (except to explain how to use the API): Zemanta and Disqus are cool examples.

An API is basically impemented in the same way as a regular web site except that what comes out is in a different format. Many APIs also allow you to write back to the server – to buy a flight, upload a file etc. – all normal operations are possible. For example here is Mark Cuban using facebook’s new social graph API:


“id”: “6423393925”,
“name”: “Mark Cuban”,
“picture”: “http://profile.ak.fbcdn.net/object2/334/121/s6423393925_2839.jpg”,
“link”: “http://www.facebook.com/MarkCuban”,
“category”: “Public_figures_other”,
“username”: “MarkCuban”,
“location”: {
“street”: “2909 Taylor”,
“city”: “Dallas”,
“state”: “TX”,
“country”: “United States”,
“zip”: “75226”
“affiliation”: “HDNet”,
“birthday”: “00/00/0000”,
“personal_info”: “just a fun loving guy :)”,
“personal_interests”: “nba,mma,rugby, ballroom dancing.. sometimes, movies, business”,
“fan_count”: 77938


If you had the authority you could get /friends /events etc. about Mark Cuban in exactly the same way. Why does Facebook do this? Because thousands of other sites can now integrate facebook data into their own systems – giving Facebook a massive presence across the web (more on Facebook’s APIs here: http://developers.facebook.com/).

But this isn’t just for the big guys – most sites could benefit from an API of their own – companies rolling them out are gaining a lot of strategical advantages:

  • they can let partners integrate with them more deeply
  • they can allow their users better access to their data
  • they can launch widgets and apps for different devices all based on their standardised API

Essentially an API allows you to build up an ecosystem of partners around the web who send you back traffic, promote your brand or even drive sales directly. [plug – remove if you wish] – Companies like 3scale can make it easy to get started with APIs and begin doing this.

Finally you can also monetize an API either by allowing transactions to take place over that channel or charging for access by hits on the API, Megabytes uploaded or some other metric. This has the potential to create a business-to-business dimension for you site.

That 5% is growing fast – check out Programmable Web for a growing list of cool APIs!


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