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December 16, 2019

Understanding Open APIs and How They Work

Are you trying to get into the world of software development, but have no idea where to even begin? If so, then a good place to start is by learning as much as you can about application programming interfaces or APIs. APIs are considered as the hidden backbone of modern software development. In fact, many companies like Stoplight have relied on APIs to bring them to the forefront of their respective industries.

Much of today’s most widely used software would not be able to function at all if not for the existence of APIs. Therefore, having a solid foundation of knowledge about APIs is essential for any developer, especially those just starting in the profession.

With that said, API as a topic can prove to be too broad. As such, we’ll be narrowing the scope and instead talk about a specific type of API, namely Open APIs. Before we delve into them, however, let’s briefly define what a standard API is.

What is an API?

An API is a software intermediary that makes it possible for two separate pieces of software to interact with each other and share information. The API may also be used by a developer to gain access to certain features of a program that might not otherwise be available.

Some real-world examples of API at work include the following:

  • WordPress allowing bloggers to show a live feed of their Twitter (News - Alert) account in their sidebar
  • Being able to copy and paste text from Microsoft Word to Notepad, and vice versa
  • Logging into an online shopping website using social media accounts (i.e. social login)

Without the use of APIs, this type of compatibility and functionality between applications would not exist.

What is an Open API?

An Open API is simply an API that is published on the internet and shared freely. Being “open” does not make it functionally different than a “closed” API, which is an API that is only utilized by the developer or company that created it. The only real difference is that any developer can freely access an open API and adopt it into their project without any consequence at all.

Open APIs should not be confused with an API that has been developed with OpenAPI. OpenAPI refers to an API description format that’s specifically designed for REST APIs, another common and popular type of API. With that said, the advantages of an OpenAPI Specification Toolkit cannot be discounted, as they allow API developers to design, build, document, and consume REST APIs much more easily than if they used any other specification. If you’re interested in REST API development, then definitely look into using OpenAPI.

Why are APIs so important?

APIs are highly valued in the software development industry because they standardize the way applications communicate with each other. As such, a developer can simply adopt the APIs they need to have their application interact with the programs they desire and not have to build an interface from scratch for each of them. This cuts down on the amount of code the developer has to write and instead focus on what makes their API unique and innovative. The result will be a polished and innovative product that’s also released in a timely fashion, something that is highly valued in today’s hypercompetitive software development industry.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of an open API?

There are many benefits to open APIs. For example, a third party company can earn revenue by coming up with an innovative way to manipulate or use an existing app and then using open API to create an app that performs that new manipulation. To that end, we can easily say that open APIs foster innovative thinking within the global coding community.

Another benefit to open APIs is that it can drive a large amount of attention to a new service or product. A startup company can release their newly developed application’s API to the public, allowing other companies to experiment with their app. This results in the startup company’s app receiving more attention while also giving those third-party companies a chance to earn revenue. It’s a win-win situation.

Unfortunately, open APIs do have some drawbacks, with the most significant being that it makes third party companies vulnerable to the decisions of the developer who owns the open API. If the API developer suddenly decides to change its terms of use or start charging usage fees, then the third party companies using the open API have no choice but to comply with the new changes.

There is also the drawback of open APIs being the same as a customer-facing product. This means that if the open API is released with bugs, flaws, or security issues, it will no doubt reflect badly on the company providing the API and might affect their reputation among their actual customers.

Open APIs: an important part of modern software development

For the inexperienced beginner, the very concept of open APIs may seem counterintuitive, especially in an industry that’s as highly competitive as IT or software development. However, it cannot be denied that open APIs contribute significantly to the ongoing innovation and advancement of technologies within the global coding community. This, along with the revenue-earning opportunities that open APIs give smaller companies and independent developers, makes open APIs a useful and important resource in business and in developing better technologies.

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