Tech Terms 101: Introduction to APIs


Software vendors of solutions ranging from operating systems and web browsers to productivity products and apps often offer APIs for developers. But what are APIs, and how do developers utilize them?

What is an API?

API stands for Application Programming Interface. An API is a set of definitions and communication mechanisms that enable two pieces of software to talk directly with each other. While a User Interface allows humans to interact with software, an API is a method for other software to interact with it. Let’s look at an analogy and an example to help understand the concept.

Imagine you are in a restaurant, ordering from a menu. When you have made your choice, you tell the waiter, who will in turn pass the order to the kitchen and subsequently bring the food to you when it is ready. In this process, the waiter acts analogously to an API; the kitchen is the application; and the food is the response of the program. You don't need to know how the kitchen prepares the food; you just enjoy the meal brought by the waiter.

As another example, rather than searching for and booking airline tickets on individual airline websites, many people prefer to research and purchase their flights through a consolidated multi-airline service or software app such as Kayak or Expedia. In this case, the travel service software (whether their app, or the software algorithms that power their website) interacts with the API provided by the individual airlines. The software can issue a request to obtain information such as flight availability and fees from the airline database, and the API will respond to the request and send back the latest relevant information to the software – all transparently to the user.

APIs make it easier for developers

As you can see from the example, APIs provide developers with the ability to leverage existing third-party software (with permission or license from the third party, of course) to quickly implement a software feature without having to access the source code of that feature. This allows developers to focus on the unique aspects of their own product without having to do everything from scratch, reducing the amount of development effort and saving a lot of time.

For example, if you want to develop chat software that can capture photos or videos from your phone's camera, you don't have to write your own camera interface code. You can use the camera API to embed the phone's built-in camera functionality into your software. This makes development easier for you, and when the camera functionality is updated by the phone vendor, as long as the API stays the same all software that utilizes it will automatically benefit from those updates.

APIs of Magewell IP devices

Magewell IP devices, including Ultra Stream, Ultra Encode and Pro Convert encoders and decoders, have rich APIs. These APIs enable developers to interact with the devices in a variety of ways, including obtaining the basic information of the device (device name, firmware version, etc.); modifying the device configuration; triggering select functionality; and updating its firmware. Magewell APIs are based on the HTTP protocol, which is a lightweight, connectionless interface, and the response data is in JSON format. Read Magewell's API documentation to learn more about what each API does and how to request it.