If you have written any software in the last 20 years, odds are you have made a call to an Application Programming Interface (API). It is a quick and easy way, provided by an application developer, to hook into their application.
API (application program interface): a set of routines, protocols and tools for building software applications. The API specifies how software components should interact and APIs are used when programming graphical user interface (GUI) components. A good API makes it easier to develop a program by providing all the building blocks. A programmer then puts the blocks together. Webopedia
APIs are integral to the widespread use of web-based applications. They are what allow mobile applications to hook into major web services, as well as other custom software. Let’s take a look at the API, where it came from and why you should be taking advantage of them whenever you can.
So You Thought It Was Salesforce.com
Ask most developers today, and they will tell you that the first API was Salesforce.com. The truth is that APIs existed long before the web existed. The concept of an API is almost as old as the idea of structured programming, and they have been around for longer than you think.
Extended High-Level Language Application Programming Interface (EHLLAPI) was introduced with the IBM 3270PC. It was a personal computer that incorporated an innovative coax adapter and had a special keyboard. It was targeted at people who were used to using terminals to access mainframes but were now using a PC.
EHLLAPI was developed as an alternative to screen scraping. Mainframe screens were sometimes “scraped” of their data, so that the data could be presented in GUI format on a PC. As an alternative to this cumbersome process, the EHLLAPI API could be called by an application to pass data to the mainframe screens, allowing navigation by an emulator program to legacy applications. In effect, the program behaved like a user, inputting data and sending appropriate control keys to legacy systems. It was a useful bridge from the new GUI technology which used a common design format to legacy applications that did not have a standard interface design. The API allowed programmers to have PCs interface with mainframes in a way that was only done in the past with a dumb terminal.
Flash forward to the early 90s when videogame developers figured out how to have a separate card to do the graphics processing. Open GL was a way for developers to create software using a cross-platform language. This was very important at the time as hardware was changing quickly, and it was hard for software developers to keep up with the changes. Open GL is still in use today, having released version 4.5 in 2014.
APIs and the Web
The web really showed us how useful and critical an API can be. Beginning with the launch of Salesforce.com in 2000, APIs became the best way for business applications to be able to share data amongst themselves. Social media has only made us more dependent on them as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others have shown what a widespread marketing and advertising tool they can be. More than 14,500 APIs can be found at Programmableweb.com’s API directory, which is updated daily.
APIs Separate the User from the Data
Spending time coding an API can end up being much more productive than using a fully integrated solution. With the proper APIs in place, you can build multiple user and customer facing websites that leverage your APIs to attach to the data you need. Changes to the database are no problem. Instead of having to fully recode the UI, all you have to do is update the API to reflect the changes, and you are on your way.
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