How to explain APIs in plain English

How to explain APIs in plain English

APIs play an important role in building today's apps, but how do you explain them to people who aren't developers? Let's talk definitions and business benefits

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November 01, 2018

Benefits of APIs

Building upon and extending those definitions, here are five key benefits you can use to help people see the API light.

1. APIs cut down on development time and costs

Building and updating today’s software is often not really about writing tons and tons of code manually from scratch. Writing net-new code is obviously still a part of software development, but much of the work in building a new product or service entails makes smart choices about leveraging code and components that already exist. APIs help development teams do that.

“We live in the world of API economy, where new software is built by leveraging many different commercial or open source software components,” says Singh of OpsRamp. “For example, Uber uses a variety of software systems for things like payment, location, maps, and traffic, all of which rely on APIs to communicate.”

2. APIs reduce complexity

The headaches involved with connecting or integrating large-scale systems and components have long been an occupational hazard in IT. APIs offer pain relief: As Kail notes above, they enable software teams to connect those systems and components without necessarily having to identify and understand all of the complexity involved, much less actually solve it as a programming or data problem.

"APIs give developers a way of collaborating to build more intricate systems of applications without having to work for the same company or even know each other."

“Without APIs, developers would need to have intimate knowledge of the internal workings of an application to be able to extend its functionality,” says Sullivan at SnapRoute. “Instead, APIs give developers a way of collaborating to build more intricate systems of applications without having to work for the same company or even know each other.”

3. APIs make everything more programmable.

APIs effectively make everything more programmable – infrastructure included – creating greater opportunities for innovation and efficiency. APIs have helped enable the automation boom in the software pipeline and elsewhere in the IT portfolio, for example. And again, in doing so, they reduce manual, repetitive, and often costly effort. Similarly, APIs enable IT teams to manage their infrastructure with code; Walker at CYBRIC notes that this is often true of cloud infrastructure and platforms.

4. APIs enable consistent behaviors and experiences

APIs can help create consistent or even uniform experiences and behaviors; that’s something that can be true for developers and end users or customers alike. The iPhone devotees in your organization might be able to wrap their head around one value of APIs in this way.

“A good example is Apple’s Cocoa API, which allows developers to build Mac and iOS applications in a consistent way. It’s why iOS and Mac apps look and behave similarly,” Walker says. “The API handles all of the low-level code of communicating with the hardware so that the developer building the application doesn’t have to.”

5. APIs create new opportunities

“API economy,” a phrase we mentioned above, can have multiple contexts. It can refer to the economies of scale or efficiency gains that APIs enable. It also sometimes refers to the significant business opportunities that APIs create.

They also create different forms of opportunity – such as the chance, as Sullivan notes above, to effectively work with other developers you’ve never even met.

And they can create new revenue opportunities or extend existing streams. Consulting firm McKinsey published a 2017 paper on capturing the value of APIs. In it, they call that value “significant,” a term that quickly sounds a bit too subdued as you keep reading.

“McKinsey analysis has estimated that as much as $1 trillion in total economic profit globally could be up for grabs through the redistribution of revenues across sectors within ecosystems,” the report says. “That makes APIs, which play a crucial role in linking organizations and technologies in ecosystems, a significant competitive battleground capability.”

Those are terms anyone can understand.

Stay tuned: In an upcoming post, we’ll examine some of the ongoing and emerging trends in how microservices and APIs work together, including the rise of the declarative API and why it’s a good thing.

[ Kubernetes terminology, demystified: Get our Kubernetes glossary cheat sheet for IT and business leaders. ]

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One comment

This isn't a simplification,

This isn't a simplification, it's trite marketing babble. Plain English? No.

Computers take a formatted input, make calculations, and export a formatted output. API is the standard that establishes the formats of that input and output.

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