What is an API? A guide to simple computer software development
Building software applications is not necessarily the stuff of computer geeks. In fact, you can start making basic software very quickly, by utilising what’s known as an application programme interface (or API). Building software for your own use needn’t be as complicated as you might assume. The following is a basic guide to what an API is, how you use an API, and how you can get started.
API: a definition
In short, an API is a set of protocols and routines, or even more simply a tool, with which the user can build applications. If you want to build a programme to carry out a specific task, an API will make it easier by giving you the blocks (portions of code) that you need. The Maptrax website gives a concise definition, describing an API as “A set of routines that an application uses to request and carry out lower-level services performed by a computer's operating system.” Alternatively, it can be “a set of calling conventions in programming that define how a service is summoned through the application.”
Why use an API?
There are certainly different types of API out there, but the Windows API is one of the more widely known, purely due to the fact that it comes free with Windows in the first instance. To learn more on the basics of programming with APIs, you may like to visit MSDN, where a good (Windows-focused) guide is available.
Other platforms also provide APIs consistent with their respective operating system (OS). These APIs ensure that developed programmes are consistent with the look, feel and interface of the OS.
With APIs, there’s no great need to understand complex coding. The idea is that you call upon the API to create each element of the programme you are creating, whether command buttons or different menus. APIs usually consist of “dynamic link libraries” (DLLs), which are files containing functions that can be summoned from an application running within the operating system.
Who can use APIs?
APIs exist to make things easier for the budding software developer. You’ll still need some reasonable IT skills though and ideally some knowledge of DLL functions, given that APIs are essentially written for C and C++ programmers (complex software code specialists).
If you’re not an expert, you’ll need to be careful, as operating the API could put your hard-drive’s contents at risk. API’s bypass certain safety mechanisms in your computer automatically, and calling a DLL function by mistake may set an error in process when you launch your code. For this reason, always make sure that you back-up your computer’s contents.
Whilst most computer users are aware of website design and deem it relatively accessible, the majority will consider software development to be out of reach; exclusive to experts. APIs are not necessarily a means to build highly-developed, complex software but could encourage inexperienced computer users to give software development a go.
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