Back to Basics: What is an API?

Author: Kristina Proffitt

29th June 2017

At Cronofy, building APIs is our job. We deal with them everyday, so it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what one is.

However, unless you’re a software developer, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have come across the term before.

But you will have come across hundreds of APIs. Realize it or not, APIs are everywhere, and once you know what they are, you’ll notice them more and more.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Just what is an API? What do they do, and why are they important?

What is an API?

An API (short for application programming interface, something nobody ever calls it), allows one website, application, or piece of software to talk to another.

We like to describe it as ‘the plumbing behind the apps’.

Your bath/shower/sink/toilet wouldn’t work without the pipes, but nobody really thinks about how crucial those pipes are until they break, do they?

Think of APIs as the pipework that connects different software and applications to each other.

An API in action

One of the most common examples of an API is that of weather.com.

Say you want to show the weather for Nottingham, UK, on your website.

You could manually add this information, but to give visitors an accurate forecast, you’d have to update it every few hours. It just isn’t practical.

You could set it up so that your website reads The Weather Channel as you or I would. It would see everything that we would; all the imagery and content, as well as the weather forecast.

However, websites are designed for people to read, not programs. While a website might look uncluttered to us, if another program came along and tried to read it, it would take all of that extra information with it.

Should the appearance of The Weather Channel change even the tiniest bit, it could break your website, too.

That’s where APIs come in.

APIs are designed to be read by computers and software, not humans. It therefore makes little sense to us, but perfect sense to other computer programs.

The biggest benefit of APIs is that it only collects the information you need. This makes it faster and more efficient for both you and the website you’re retrieving data from.

In our example, The Weather Channel’s API would act as a middle person to your website and The Weather Channel, returning only the information you need – the real-time weather forecast for Nottingham.

It wouldn’t notice how the website looks or even how the weather forecast is styled on The Weather Channel. This means that should they make any changes to how their website looks, your website won’t be affected.

This also means that you can style how the weather forecast looks to match the rest of your website.

Cronofy, the Calendar API

Cronofy reads the data from all the major calendar services – iCloud, Google Calendar, Microsoft Exchange and Office 365 – to allow software developers to integrate users’ calendars into their applications.

For instance, you can integrate Trello with your calendar via Cronofy. Any due dates you add to Trello can then be added to your calendar so that you can keep track of your projects alongside everything else you’ve got going on, too.

Cronofy's Trello integration in action.

Connecting your calendar to the software that you use minimizes the risk of double-booking personal and professional commitments and helps you to manage your time better.

APIs are everywhere

We use APIs every day without even realizing it.

Buffer, for example, use APIs to connect to social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

When a website displays their social media feeds, this too is extracted from the social network using an API.

Stripe, which handles payment information for sites like Buffer, is also an API.

So is cloud-communications platform Twilio.

And of course, so is Cronofy.

Once you know what an API does, you start to see them all the time. They’re all around us, and they’re crucial to ensuring the seamless running of twenty-first century life.

See for yourself

Want to find out more about APIs and what calendar sync could do for you?

Book your Cronofy demo today!

Avatar of Kristina Proffitt

Kristina Proffitt

Date: 29th June 2017 | Category: API, Back to Basics