What is an API?

5 min read

This non-technical explanation will demystify what APIs are and what they do using real-world examples.

When you type “what is an API?” in Google, you’ll get an endless list of definitions that likely sound like techy gibberish to you. Chances are, you’ve seen the acronym API many times before and you know that APIs are important in some way in the software industry. But if you’re not a software engineer, it can be challenging to understand what they really are and what they do for us.

Thankfully, your days of scrolling through pages and pages of search results are over. We’re here today to leave the tech jargon behind and help you understand what APIs are once and for all.

APIs made simple

We live in a world that revolves around connection. The vast majority of people own cell phones or other computer-like gadgets that connect them to various networks–with limitless access to friends and family. Today, we have grown accustomed to having instant connectivity with a few swipes of a finger. For example, we can purchase a product directly through Instagram or send feedback about a product to a company chatbot through WhatsApp. Really, we can do just about anything from behind our screens.

But how is this all possible? You guessed it. It’s with the help of APIs.

The acronym stands for the technical term, Application Programming Interface. But in plain English, an API is a software intermediary that allows two software components to communicate with each other. Put differently, an API is the middleman software that lets one separate software send and receive data to another software.

A quick analogy will put this into perspective. Let’s imagine that you are software–yes you!–and you’re at a restaurant. The restaurant is also software, but a different one. You’re starving and are in desperate need of a data-sandwich. You need to interact with the restaurant to order it. Then, the waiter comes along to take your order and deliver it to the kitchen. The waiter is the API  in this analogy.

Spotting APIs in the real world

There are countless APIs that help us do all sorts of things. Here are a few examples of popular APIs to give you a better idea of what they look like in real life.

    tyntec API and WhatsApp API

    Most likely, you’re already very familiar with WhatsApp and how to use it to communicate with friends and family. But perhaps what you didn’t know, is that it’s developed APIs that businesses can use to connect with Whatsapp’s messaging service and its 2 billion users.

    tyntec is a global business solution partner of WhatsApp and Meta, and thousands of businesses onboarded with us to use WhatsApp–among other channels–every day. Brands can integrate WhatsApp as a channel with our Conversations API in any software they already use. Brands can then seamlessly connect with their users all over the world–giving them meaningful and personalized messaging experiences.

    You can also sync external data with another system using an API. Let’s use tyntec’s Conversations Inbox as an example. The Conversations Inbox is an interface that allows you to manage all customer conversations from all channels in one place. You can integrate your CRM system to sync existing contact data and conversations to the Conversations Inbox. This allows you to fetch and push data from and to your CRM anytime. You can integrate your CRM systems using tyntec’s Conversations Inbox API.

    Google Maps API

    Google Maps is the go-to navigation app for many users all over the world. It develops numerous APIs that businesses can use to optimize their location data and services–and thereby provide better services. But what does that mean for us?

    Here’s an example. You likely know a few of the apps using Google Maps APIs. Take ridesharing apps for instance. These apps can use the APIs to locate the closest driver, display the customer’s and driver’s location, and use the autocomplete feature to make filling in the address of a destination simpler. And those are just a few of the many ways Google Maps APIs improve ridesharing businesses. 

    Ecommerce companies are no strangers to Google Maps’ APIs either. Shopify has many themes to choose from that include a map section that you can add to your home page. The Google Maps API needs to be registered through the map section settings in the theme editor. And voilà, the shopping experience is made both easier and faster for customers. 

    Twitter API

    With its millions of active users, vast amounts of data are generated on Twitter daily. That’s where the APIs come into play. The Twitter APIs make it possible to analyze and put to use this gargantuan amount of data. Said differently, the APIs allow businesses to read and write Twitter data–that means that it can be used to compose tweets, read profiles, access followers’ data,  and access a high volume of tweets on particular subjects in specific locations.

    Here are a few more things a business can do using Twitter APIs (you may have even seen some of these on websites or apps already):

    • Build an app where users can access tweets related to specific subject matter. For instance, they could show a COVID-19-related tweet tracker. They could also set up a timeline that only shows tweets from selected companies or industries.
    • Collect and organize certain tweets to produce a story on a website. This gives the opportunity to show a trend, demonstrate user engagement with a branded hashtag, etc. 
    • Create a website where visitors can see and read tweets from only selected areas.  

    Facebook (Meta) API

    Facebook (Meta) allows developers to pull data and functionality directly from the Facebook platform. The APIs let apps track a plethora of information, such as web conversions and page visits, as well as data required for ad targeting, reporting, and others. 

    On top of that, the APIs are easy to integrate with CRM systems, making it simple for marketers and advertisers to analyze that data and deliver highly-targeted ads and messages to selected users. With APIs it is also possible to broadcast a live video stream, schedule broadcasts, and interact with audiences during broadcasts. 

    It’s no surprise then that Instagram, which is related to the Facebook (Meta) family, also develops APIs. These APIs allow individuals to publish media, manage comments, share content such as Instagram stories, manage published photos and videos, and many more. 

    See how APIs make so much possible for both the private user and for businesses?  

    There you have it, complex APIs made simple

    You can finally say that you know what APIs really are *sigh of relief*. 

    As you have come to learn, APIs bring software together to perform a desired function built around sharing data and executing pre-defined processes. They function as the intermediary, allowing developers to build new programmatic interactions between the various applications people and businesses use on a daily basis.

    Today, it is not enough for businesses to use web-based applications to reach customers. APIs are extremely valuable and strategic for skyrocketing growth. They allow businesses to put data to use. They add new revenue channels to businesses, while at the same time helping to save costs. APIs expand the reach of your brand and can improve customer satisfaction. Their usefulness is limitless.

    So remember, the next time someone asks you what an API is, just think of the data-sandwich you ordered at the restaurant.