application programming interface

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application programming interface
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{{redirect|API}}In computer programming, an application programming interface (API) is a set of subroutine definitions, communication protocols, and tools for building software. In general terms, it is a set of clearly defined methods of communication among various components. A good API makes it easier to develop a computer program by providing all the building blocks, which are then put together by the programmer.An API may be for a web-based system, operating system, database system, computer hardware, or software library.An API specification can take many forms, but often includes specifications for routines, data structures, object classes, variables, or remote calls. POSIX, Windows API and ASPI are examples of different forms of APIs. Documentation for the API usually is provided to facilitate usage and implementation.


Just as a graphical user interface (GUI) makes it easier for people to use programs, application programming interfaces make it easier for developers to use certain technologies in building applications. An API simplifies programming by abstracting the underlying implementation and only exposing objects or actions the developer needs. While a graphical interface for an email client might provide a user with a button that performs all the steps for fetching and highlighting new emails, an API for file input/output might give the developer a function that copies a file from one location to another without requiring that the developer understand the file system operations occurring behind the scenes.WEB, Clarke, Steven, Measuring API Usability,weblink Dr. Dobb's, 29 July 2016, 2004, The modern API management helps the enterprises expose individual components in well-documented services that the internal developers and partners can use to rapidly iterate new features.NEWS,weblink APIs: Leverage For Digital Transformation, Rethans, John, Forbes, 2018-10-11, en,


Libraries and frameworks

An API usually is related to a software library. The API describes and prescribes the "expected behavior" (a specification) while the library is an "actual implementation" of this set of rules.A single API can have multiple implementations (or none, being abstract) in the form of different libraries that share the same programming interface.The separation of the API from its implementation can allow programs written in one language to use a library written in another. For example, because Scala and Java compile to compatible bytecode, Scala developers can take advantage of any Java API.WEB, Odersky, Martin, Spoon, Lex, Venners, Bill, Combining Scala and Java,weblink, 29 July 2016, 10 December 2008, API use can vary depending on the type of programming language involved.An API for a procedural language such as Lua could consist primarily of basic routines to execute code, manipulate data or handle errors while an API for an object-oriented language, such as Java, would provide a specification of classes and its class methods.JOURNAL, de Figueiredo, Luiz Henrique, Ierusalimschy, Roberto, Filho, Waldemar Celes, The design and implementation of a language for extending applications, TeCGraf Grupo de Tecnologia em Computacao Grafica,weblink 29 July 2016, WEB, Sintes, Tony, Just what is the Java API anyway?,weblink JavaWorld, 29 July 2016, Language bindings are also APIs. By mapping the features and capabilities of one language to an interface implemented in another language, a language binding allows a library or service written in one language to be used when developing in another language.WEB,weblink Emery, David, Standards, APIs, Interfaces and Bindings,, 2016-08-08,weblink" title="">weblink 2015-01-16, yes, Tools such as SWIG and F2PY, a Fortran-to-Python interface generator, facilitate the creation of such interfaces.WEB,weblink,, 2011-12-18, An API can also be related to a software framework: a framework can be based on several libraries implementing several APIs, but unlike the normal use of an API, the access to the behavior built into the framework is mediated by extending its content with new classes plugged into the framework itself.Moreover, the overall program flow of control can be out of the control of the caller and in the hands of the framework by inversion of control or a similar mechanism.WEB, Martin, Fowler, Inversion Of Control,weblink WEB, Mohamed, Fayad, Object-Oriented Application Frameworks,weblink

Operating systems

An API can specify the interface between an application and the operating system.BOOK, Lewine, Donald A., POSIX Programmer's Guide, 1991, O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 1,weblink 2 August 2016, {{Dead link|date=November 2018 |bot=InternetArchiveBot |fix-attempted=yes }} POSIX, for example, specifies a set of common APIs that aim to enable an application written for a POSIX conformant operating system to be compiled for another POSIX conformant operating system.Linux and Berkeley Software Distribution are examples of operating systems that implement the POSIX APIs.JOURNAL, West, Joel, Dedrick, Jason, Open source standardization: the rise of Linux in the network era, Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 2001, 14, 2, 88–112,weblink 2 August 2016, Springer, Microsoft has shown a strong commitment to a backward-compatible API, particularly within its Windows API (Win32) library, so older applications may run on newer versions of Windows using an executable-specific setting called "Compatibility Mode".WEB
, Microsogt
, Support for Windows XP
, Microsoft
, 4
, October 2001
, yes
,weblink" title="">weblink
, 2009-09-26
, An API differs from an application binary interface (ABI) in that an API is source code based while an ABI is binary based. For instance, POSIX provides APIs while the Linux Standard Base provides an ABI.WEB,weblink LSB Introduction, Linux Foundation, 21 June 2012, 2015-03-27, WEB, Nick, Stoughton,weblink Update on Standards, USENIX, PDF, April 2005, 2009-06-04,

Remote APIs

Remote APIs allow developers to manipulate remote resources through protocols, specific standards for communication that allow different technologies to work together, regardless of language or platform.For example, the Java Database Connectivity API allows developers to query many different types of databases with the same set of functions, while the Java remote method invocation API uses the Java Remote Method Protocol to allow invocation of functions that operate remotely, but appear local to the developer.JOURNAL, Bierhoff, Kevin, API Protocol Compliance in Object-Oriented Software, CMU Institute for Software Research, 23 April 2009,weblink 29 July 2016, WEB, Wilson, M. Jeff, Get smart with proxies and RMI,weblink JavaWorld, 29 July 2016, Therefore, remote APIs are useful in maintaining the object abstraction in object-oriented programming; a method call, executed locally on a proxy object, invokes the corresponding method on the remote object, using the remoting protocol, and acquires the result to be used locally as return value.A modification on the proxy object also will result in a corresponding modification on the remote object.WEB, Michi, Henning, Steve, Vinoski, Advanced CORBA Programming with C++,weblink Addison-Wesley, 16 June 2015, 1999, 978-0201379273,

Web APIs

Web APIs are the defined interfaces through which interactions happen between an enterprise and applications that use its assets, which also is a Service Level Agreement (SLA) to specify the functional provider and expose the service path or URL for its API users. An API approach is an architectural approach that revolves around providing a program interface to a set of services to different applications serving different types of consumers.WEB,weblink, PDF download, API-fication, August 2014, When used in the context of web development, an API is typically defined as a set of specifications, such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) request messages, along with a definition of the structure of response messages, usually in an Extensible Markup Language (XML) or JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format. An example might be a shipping company API that can be added to an eCommerce-focused website to facilitate ordering shipping services and automatically include current shipping rates, without the site developer having to enter the shipper's rate table into a web database. While "web API" historically virtually has been synonymous for web service, the recent trend (so-called Web 2.0) has been moving away from Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) based web services and service-oriented architecture (SOA) towards more direct representational state transfer (REST) style web resources and resource-oriented architecture (ROA).WEB
, Djamal
, Benslimane
, Schahram Dustdar, Amit Sheth
, Services Mashups: The New Generation of Web Applications
, IEEE Internet Computing, vol. 12, no. 5
, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
, 13–15
, 2008
Part of this trend is related to the Semantic Web movement toward Resource Description Framework (RDF), a concept to promote web-based ontology engineering technologies. Web APIs allow the combination of multiple APIs into new applications known as mashups.
|first = James
|last = Niccolai
|title = So What Is an Enterprise Mashup, Anyway?
|url =weblink
|work = PC World
|date = 2008-04-23
}}In the social media space, web APIs have allowed web communities to facilitate sharing content and data between communities and applications. In this way, content that is created in one place dynamically can be posted and updated to multiple locations on the web.WEB, Parr, Ben, The Evolution of the Social Media API,weblink Mashable, 26 July 2016,
For example, Twitter's REST API allows developers to access core Twitter data and the Search API provides methods for developers to interact with Twitter Search and trends data.WEB, Web API,weblink, 21 February 2016,


The design of an API has significant impact on its usage. The principle of information hiding describes the role of programming interfaces as enabling modular programming by hiding the implementation details of the modules so that users of modules need not understand the complexities inside the modules.JOURNAL, Parnas, D.L., On the Criteria To Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules, Association for Computing Machinery, 1972,weblink 8 August 2016, Thus, the design of an API attempts to provide only the tools a user would expect. The design of programming interfaces represents an important part of software architecture, the organization of a complex piece of software.JOURNAL, Garlan, David, Shaw, Mary, An Introduction to Software Architecture, Advances in Software Engineering and Knowledge Engineering, January 1994, 1,weblink 8 August 2016, Several authors have created recommendations for how to design APIs, such as Joshua Bloch,WEB, Bloch, Josh, How to design a good API and why it matters

Release policies

APIs are one of the more common ways technology companies integrate with each other. Those that provide and use APIs are considered as being members of a business ecosystem.WEB, de Ternay, Guerric, Business Ecosystem: Creating an Economic Moat,weblink BoostCompanies, Oct 10, 2015, 2016-02-01, The main policies for releasing an API are:WEB, Boyd, Mark, Private, Partner or Public: Which API Strategy Is Best for Business?,weblink ProgrammableWeb, 2 August 2016,
  • Private: The API is for internal company use only.
  • Partner: Only specific business partners can use the API. For example, car service companies such as Uber and Lyft allow approved third-party developers to directly order rides from within their apps. This allows the companies to exercise quality control by curating which apps have access to the API, and provides them with an additional revenue stream.WEB, Weissbrot, Alison, Car Service APIs Are Everywhere, But What’s In It For Partner Apps? {{!, AdExchanger|url=|website=ad exchanger|accessdate=2 August 2016|date=7 July 2016}}
  • Public: The API is available for use by the public. For example, Microsoft makes the Microsoft Windows API public, and Apple releases its APIs Carbon and Cocoa, so that software can be written for their platforms.

Public API implications

An important factor when an API becomes public is its "interface stability". Changes by a developer to a part of it—for example adding new parameters to a function call—could break compatibility with clients that depend on that API.JOURNAL, Shi, Lin, Zhong, Hao, Xie, Tao, Li, Mingshu, An Empirical Study on Evolution of API Documentation, International Conference on Fundamental Approaches to Software Engineering, 2011,weblink 22 July 2016, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, When parts of a publicly presented API are subject to change and thus not stable, such parts of a particular API should be documented explicitly as "unstable". For example, in the Google Guava library, the parts that are considered unstable, and that might change in the near future, are marked with the Java annotation @Beta.WEB,weblink guava-libraries - Guava: Google Core Libraries for Java 1.6+ - Google Project Hosting,, 2014-02-04, 2014-02-11, A public API can sometimes declare parts of itself as deprecated or rescinded. This usually means that part of the API should be considered a candidate for being removed, or modified in a backward incompatible way. Therefore, these changes allows developers to transition away from parts of the API that will be removed or not supported in the future.WEB, Oracle, How and When to Deprecate APIs,weblink Java SE Documentation, 2 August 2016, For any library with a significant user base, as soon as an element becomes part of the public API, it starts being used in diverse ways.JOURNAL, Mendez, Diego, Baudry, Benoit, Monperrus, Martin, Empirical evidence of large-scale diversity in API usage of object-oriented software, 2013,weblink 10.1109/SCAM.2013.6648183, In this perspective, client code sometimes contain original or opportunistic usages that were never envisioned by the API designers.


API documentation describes what services an API offers and how to use those services, aiming to cover everything a client would need to know for practical purposes.Documentation is crucial for the development and maintenance of applications using the API.JOURNAL, Dekel, Uri, Herbsleb, James D., Improving API Documentation Usability with Knowledge Pushing, Institute for Software Research, School of Computer Science, May 2009,weblink 22 July 2016, Carnegie Mellon University, API documentation is traditionally found in documentation files but can also be found in social media such as blogs, forums, and Q&A websites.JOURNAL, Parnin, Chris, Treude, Cristoph, May 2011, Measuring API Documentation on the Web,weblink Web2SE, 22 July 2016, Traditional documentation files are often presented via a documentation system, such as Javadoc or Pydoc, that has a consistent appearance and structure.However, the types of content included in the documentation differs from API to API.JOURNAL, Maalej, Waleed, Robillard, Martin P., Patterns of Knowledge in API Reference Documentation, IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON SOFTWARE ENGINEERING, April 2012,weblink 22 July 2016, In the interest of clarity, API documentation may include a description of classes and methods in the API as well as "typical usage scenarios, code snippets, design rationales, performance discussions, and contracts", but implementation details of the API services themselves are usually omitted.Restrictions and limitations on how the API can be used are also covered by the documentation. For instance, documentation for an API function could note that its parameters cannot be null, that the function itself is not thread safe,JOURNAL, Monperrus, Martin, Eichberg, Michael, Tekes, Elif, Mezini, Mira, What should developers be aware of? An empirical study on the directives of API documentation, Empirical Software Engineering, 3 December 2011, 17, 6, 703–737, 10.1007/s10664-011-9186-4,weblink 22 July 2016, 1205.6363, or that a decrement and cancel protocol averts self-trading.{{Clarify|reason=explanation required|date=February 2018}}Because API documentation tends to be comprehensive, it is a challenge for writers to keep the documentation updated and for users to read it carefully, potentially yielding bugs.JOURNAL, Shi, Lin, Zhong, Hao, Xie, Tao, Li, Mingshu, An Empirical Study on Evolution of API Documentation, International Conference on Fundamental Approaches to Software Engineering, 2011,weblink 22 July 2016, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, API documentation can be enriched with metadata information like Java annotations. This metadata can be used by the compiler, tools, and by the run-time environment to implement custom behaviors or custom handling.WEB,weblink Annotations, 2011-09-30, Sun Microsystems, .It is possible to generate API documentation in data-driven manner. By observing a large number of programs that use a given API, it is possible to infer the typical usages, as well the required contracts and directives.JOURNAL, Bruch, Marcel, Mezini, Mira, Monperrus, Martin, Mining subclassing directives to improve framework reuse,weblink 7th IEEE Working Conference on Mining Software Repositories (MSR 2010), IEEE, 10.1109/msr.2010.5463347, Then, templates can be used to generate natural language from the mined data.

Copyright controversy

In 2010, Oracle Corporation sued Google for having distributed a new implementation of Java embedded in the Android operating system.WEB,weblink Oracle and the End of Programming As We Know It, DrDobbs, 2012-05-01, 2012-05-09, Google had not acquired any permission to reproduce the Java API, although permission had been given to the similar OpenJDK project. Judge William Alsup ruled in the Oracle v. Google case that APIs cannot be copyrighted in the U.S, and that a victory for Oracle would have widely expanded copyright protection and allowed the copyrighting of simple software commands:To accept Oracle's claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing its own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands.WEB,weblink APIs Can't be Copyrighted Says Judge in Oracle Case, TGDaily, 2012-06-01, 2012-12-06, WEB
, Oracle America, Inc. vs. Google Inc.
, 2012-05-31, 2013-09-22
, Wired (magazine), Wired
, In 2014, however, Alsup's ruling was overturned on appeal, though the question of whether such use of APIs constitutes fair use was left unresolved.NEWS,weblink Court sides with Oracle over Android in Java patent appeal, CNET, May 9, 2014, 2014-05-10, Rosenblatt, Seth, In 2016, following a two-week trial, a jury determined that Google's reimplementation of the Java API constituted fair use, but Oracle vowed to appeal the decision.WEB,weblink Google beats Oracle—Android makes "fair use" of Java APIs, Ars Technica, 2016-07-28, Oracle won on its appeal, with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruling that Google's use of the APIs did not qualify for fair use.WEB,weblink Oracle Wins Revival of Billion-Dollar Case Against Google, Susan, Decker, March 27, 2018, March 27, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek,


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See also

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Further reading

  • JOURNAL,weblink Computational Culture, 2013, Taina Bucher, Objects of Intense Feeling: The Case of the Twitter API, 3, 2047-2390, argues that "APIs are far from neutral tools" and form a key part of contemporary programming, understood as a fundamental part of culture.
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