Was it Isaac Newton who said he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants? APIs are like pithy, epigrammatic quotes for those who write code. They let programmers see further and stand on the shoulders of giants.
Over the last decade, the development community has grown obsessed with public APIs, and the development of them continues to explode. Someone gets a good idea, writes some great code, and then decides to “ship it” by setting up a website that lets us run the code remotely. In the old days, there would have been licensing agreements, downloads, compilation issues, and endless hair-pulling in order to stand on the shoulders of giants. Now we can just post some JSON to a website and get the answer back in a fraction of a second.
Technically, much of the licensing challenges are still there, but now signing those endless documents is as simple as opening an account and clicking a button. The first batches are usually free, something that makes development and even the early days of launch much simpler. Experimentation is easy and cost-free. After that, you’ll want to pay close attention to the costs. Many of the APIs are priced at tiny fractions of a cent, but once your cool project goes viral, those slivers of a cent can start to add up.
It’s also important to recognize that APIs are constantly shifting and access is by no means permanent or guaranteed. When some clever folks discovered that Venmo transactions are often public, they created the Vicemo website for anyone who wants to browse transactions tagged with words that might imply less than honorable behavior. Will these sometimes embarrassing details stay open and public? I hope someone is paying attention to the privacy implications. Facebook wasn’t careful enough and now its API reveals much less information.