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App Development
9 minutes read

What Is an API for Mobile Apps?

By Mario Tatis
man in suit pointing at API logos
By Mario Tatis
App Development
9 minutes read

If you’ve been around app development projects, you may wonder if you can use an API for mobile apps. Before we go any further, you should know the answer is yes; you can use APIs in mobile applications. In fact, the grand majority of mobile apps take advantage of the possibilities that APIs enable

APIs are the powerful tools that help keep mobile apps convenient and relevant. Without app APIs, the mobile experience that we all know and rely on would be very different. APIs help mobile and web apps stay connected to the vital information that they need to deliver a high-quality User Experience. Let’s explore APIs in more detail. First, we need to cover the basics of what an API is. Next, we’ll explore some of the common mobile APIs and their uses. Finally, we’ll cover RESTful APIs and explore why this architectural structure is ideal for mobile apps.

What is an API?

API is an acronym. It stands for application programming interface. An application programming interface is a software intermediary that allows interaction between multiple applications. In basic terms, APIs allow apps to talk to one another and share information. APIs can also be used to extend the functionality of a mobile application as well. When it comes to mobile app development, APIs play a major role. Without the aid of quality APIs, it would be extremely difficult for mobile apps to utilize a massive amount of data in a usable mobile framework. 

APIs offer developers and users alike integration. In the case of developers, integration makes their tasks easier, and for users, integration equals better services and more information. APIs can be purchased, and they can be custom-built to meet the specific requirements and needs of an organization. 

When an API is purchased, the party purchasing the API will be given an API key. An API key is a code that acts as a unique identifier as well as a secret authentication token. Developers use API keys to ensure that their API is not being abused or used in any malicious way. Keys also serve to restrict API access which helps with monetization, and since keys are unique identifiers they can be used to help track usage patterns as well.  

APIs are as diverse as the mobile apps and web apps that they serve. If you’re looking for the perfect API for your mobile app and you can’t find it, you can always build it yourself or hire an app development partner to build it for you. There is almost no limit to what an application programming interface can do. Let’s continue and take a look at some of the most commonly used APIs and how they are utilized to make apps more convenient and powerful. 

Common Mobile APIs and Their Uses 

A great way to understand APIs in a practical context is to look at popular mobile application APIs that are used every day. You’ll likely recognize most of the app APIs below, and you have probably used a fair amount of them too. 

Facebook API

Let’s start with the most popular and most used mobile API by app developers and users alike. The Facebook application programming interface allows mobile apps to access user profile information and utilize the social connections that have made Facebook such a global success. This API gives mobile apps the ability to post activities, accomplishments, etc., to the news feed and profile pages of Facebook. Of course, API access is predicated on user privacy and security settings, but if users allow access, the Facebook API can share directly from the app to Facebook. The Facebook app API can also be used to sign in, create profiles, and authenticate users on other websites and apps that are using the API. This gives users the power and convenience to sign into and register for additional accounts using their Facebook credentials. 

Twitter API

The Twitter API is also very popular for mobile developers and users. In many respects, this mobile app API is very similar to the Facebook API in terms of what it does for users. This API can be used to help users make posts to Twitter directly from another mobile app, and it can be used to help login and create accounts on mobile apps and websites. 

There are a lot of app APIs that give users the ability to login to other websites and mobile apps using their credentials. We won’t go through all of these app APIs because they essentially all do the same thing. Besides Twitter and Facebook, Gmail is another very popular API that helps authenticate users and allows users to use one account across multiple websites and apps. 

Google Maps API

The Google Maps API is one of the most popular app APIs of all time. Unlike the other APIs already discussed, the Google Maps API is not free to use. Google charges developers to use their valuable mapping and location-tracking API. Even after paying for access to this API, there are restrictions based on the number of queries made in a 24 hour period. In order to help reduce the costs of using the Google Maps API, Google has split some of its main mapping services into four different APIs:

  • Directions API
  • Static Maps API
  • Distance Matrix API
  • Street View Image API

This gives app developers the ability to pick and choose which mapping and tracking services they want instead of paying more for the complete Google Maps service. A lot of mobile apps use maps to help provide their users with location information, directions, and more. 

AccuWeather API

People always want the latest weather information. There are many different APIs that provide real-time weather information. However, out of all the weather APIs, AccuWeather is the most popular. 

AccuWeather provides accurate weather data for any location on the planet by utilizing its partner weather stations positioned around the globe and its outreach partners in over 200,000 cities. This API also costs money. AccuWeather offers a subscription model for access to their powerful real-time weather API. A lot of different mobile apps utilize weather reports, including news apps, sports apps, shipment tracking apps, and more. 

YouTube Data API

The YouTube API allows developers to bring powerful web services from YouTube directly into their mobile apps. This application programming interface can be used to upload videos, manage playlists, manage subscriptions, update channel settings, and pretty much anything else you could do on YouTube. Bringing YouTube features into your mobile app is great for app design because users are already familiar with how YouTube works, and there is a massive amount of content on the platform. 

The YouTube Data API is free to use, but there are traffic quotas. You will have to visit the Google Developers page to get more information about the specifics of the YouTube Data API quota. Once your quota has been reached, users will get a 403 error. Still, YouTube Data is a good example of how an API can extend a mobile app’s performance capabilities. 

The application programming interfaces that we have discussed up to this point have been front-end user-facing APIs. There are also APIs that work in the back-end to make app development, management, and maintenance tasks easier to perform too. As we’ve said before, there are APIs for just about everything you could think of, and there are more being developed every day. 

What are RESTful APIs?

RESTful or REST is an architectural structure for an application programming interface. REST is an acronym that stands for representational state transfer. A RESTful API uses HTTP requests to access and use data. The data accessed by a RESTful API can be:

  • Read
  • Updated 
  • Created
  • Deleted

The RESTful API structure is more commonly used in the development of APIs for mobile apps because it requires less bandwidth than the alternative, which means it is more Internet efficient. REST also has faster processing times. 

The alternative to RESTful APIs would be SOAP. SOAP stands for simple object access protocol. SOAP APIs rely exclusively on XML for messaging, which is bulkier, slower, and requires more bandwidth to process. This doesn’t mean that there is no value in SOAP APIs. SOAP has many advantages over REST, especially when it comes to large, distributed enterprise environments. However, SOAP has a higher learning curve than REST and requires the use of more expensive tools. RESTful APIs are the most popular for mobile apps, but that doesn’t mean that they are the only mobile app APIs.

RESTful APIs have been around since the early ‘00s and have had a large impact on HiTech apps and companies. One of the earliest and most prominent RESTful APIs was created by eBay in 2000. This allowed the marketplace to expand its reach to any website that could access its API. eBay’s direct competitor, Amazon, noticed this potential, and they released their own RESTful API in 2002. Shortly after, in 2004, Flickr released a RESTful API allowing bloggers and websites to easily embed pictures on their websites. Finally, Facebook and Twitter launched their own RESTful APIs in 2006. 

Perhaps the most historically significant RESTful API was released in 2006 by Amazon Web Services right as cloud computing really began to take off. The cloud created an increase in demand for public APIs. Since then, RESTful APIs have come to be commonplace on the Internet and mobile apps. Without RESTful APIs, the Internet as we know it would not exist. 

Final Thoughts

APIs are essential to the functionality and efficiency of mobile apps. They help developers create immersive digital experiences for their end-users, and they make aspects of the development process smoother and more efficient too. Mobile apps are always going to rely on solid application programming interfaces. If you want to learn more about the power of APIs or if you want to develop your own API, speak with an app development partner. Getting the expertise and the industry experience that a development partner can bring to the table can make a big difference in your mobile app development project.

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