15 APIs every developer should know

From AI and AR to transportation and telephony, these web APIs open up all kinds of intriguing possibilities to developers

15 APIs every developer should know
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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.

The savviest API developers are avoiding embarrassment like this by adding more thorough authentication, better security, and more careful accounting. Some API fans argue that keeping the data in the central server farm that hosts the API is much better than letting it float around the Internet in a decentralized mist. If that central warehouse remains strong, the data remains protected.

All of this means that using APIs is more complicated than ever, but it is often manageable. In most cases, the API will do the managing for you. Leaving you free to come up with clever ways to integrate the code behind the interface with your application.

Here are 15 APIs that caught our eye and made us want to re-architect every app in the stack.

Slack

A good programming team can define a great architecture for an API, but the real measure of demand is whether people are using the platform. And in the case of Slack, more and more offices are embracing it. More and more teams are replacing meetings with Slack channels and these teams are using Slack messages to define the flow of work. That means there are more demands to connect all of your other office tools to Slack. And more demands for chatbots to post updates to the right chat rooms so the right team members can be updated about how everything is running. The incoming mechanism for posting an update is very simple. If that’s not enough, there are also two-way APIs for accessing the events and real-time messaging. “Don’t call us,” the documentation says. “We’ll call you.”

Webdam

Much of a company’s digital presence is defined by images, and these images need to be stored, cataloged, and curated. Once upon a time, we could just stick them on a file server with multiple folders. Webdam goes much further, offering secure cloud storage with a moderated and organized workflow. The photos and artwork arrive from the creators as files but they become “assets” inside the system as they make their way through the chain of approval to the ads, websites, and brochures that define a brand. If you’re in a small company and you’re the only one controlling the brand imagery, you might be able to do this yourself with a chunk of file space. But when you start to work with a team, a tool for managing the flow becomes essential. The Webdam API lets you leverage your own internal code and rely upon Webdam to be the file system that stores and organizes your imagery.

RingCentral

Telephones are still a challenge for a corporation. Many struggle to adapt to the way the employees will carry their personal phones and pretty much ignore that expensive company phone on the desk. After all, the personal cell phone goes to meetings but the company phone doesn’t.

RingCentral is a modern switch that will integrate the company’s phone infrastructure with personal and company mobiles using a web interface. Incoming calls can be routed to entire work groups and management teams just to make sure that an important customer’s call isn’t missed.

The RingCentral API is one automated way to keep these lists of numbers and roles organized and up-to-date. Many companies may want to integrate their onboarding (and off-boarding) scripts to juggle the numbers for employees. The API will also track call volume and let you measure the amount of time that employees spend on calls using analytics and visualization. If you want even more automation, the chatbot API will circulate important status updates to users. 

Twilio

There’s more to phone integration than keeping the infrastructure working around the office. Twilio is designed to make it simpler to interface your apps with the old voice and text capabilities of the phones, in other words the things our phones could do before the arrival of the buzzword “smartphone.”

If you have to pass along a message to someone and the best way to reach that someone is on a voice call, you can hand the message to Twilio’s TwiML API so it can dial the number, convert the message to speech, and then play it to whomever picks up. Other Twilio APIs let you send out text messages and respond to incoming phone calls to your special Twilio number.

These aren’t the only options and there are too many to list. Twilio’s main role is building the kind of infrastructure that makes it possible to juggle thousands of daily calls with a collection of specialists who pick up the calls that end up in a queue. It treats the old school telephony options, the voice and text messages, as first-class citizens and makes it easier to reach people with them.

Watson

The Watson brand name is growing to be bigger than IBM itself, driven by the widespread interest in AI. Watson already covers about a dozen different APIs that will help you understand images, sound, and text. You input your training set and then the API learns enough to start answering questions. The Visual Recognition API will take your images and start applying tags that classify the items in the pictures. The Tone Analyzer API will look for words that signify particular emotions in text. IBM suggests you pipe this information to your chatbots so they behave appropriately.

Check out the Watson documentation, starter code, and SDKs to start writing your own “cognitive apps.” Or just play around with the Watson API Explorer to learn what the APIs will do before you write anything.

Hootsuite

Managing your presence on social media is a big challenge for individuals and an even bigger challenge for companies, especially large and disparate ones. Hootsuite brings together all of a company’s social media accounts in one place and then opens up access to your collection through your API. It will watch over your social media responses and cross-posts and let you organize your responses and new announcements. The Hootsuite API is sort of a meta-API that offers one access point that will, in  turn, connect to all of the social media APIs.

The Hootsuite API also offers a collection of webhooks that can be invoked whenever a particular Hootsuite event happens. In other words, it can push news off to any other API you’ve got going out there.

Google Drive

Google Docs is growing more and more popular as an alternative to Microsoft’s Office, and that means there’s more and more demand to integrate the online productivity suite with the rest of your stack. You can create and share Google Docs documents with Google’s extensive Google Drive REST API. The main target are businesses that want an easy way to manage regular automated reports (and other documents) in one centralized location.

Of course, once these documents are created, all of the people with access can revise, extend, and comment upon them. In other words, if you want to create a centralized way for people to collaborate and make sense of some shared data, all you need to do is dump out a raw document into the Google Drive world and the rest of the work is handled by the Google infrastructure.

The number of Google Drive APIs is large and growing. There are corners for all of the different file types (Sheets, Docs, Slides) that can add more features for anyone working with the files. There’s also more and more integration with the Android OS, something that opens up possibilities for quick smartphone development without all of the hassles of creating a full Android app.

Google AR

If a picture is worth 1000 words, how much is it worth if you add little text bubbles and details that explain just what we are looking at? Augmented reality (AR) offers the chance to add lots of these animated details in real time to whatever our camera sees—and to share these virtual objects and diagrams with others. Google wants to build the backbone that supports these AR interactions.

Google’s Cloud Anchors API, for instance, allows Android apps to mark coordinates in 3D space so that multiple users can create a collaborative collection of words, lines, objects, and other enhancements. You might use this for business meetings, discussions, or games. Google’s Light Board game lets two people compete in a board game in “AR space,” with a hidden markup of reality that only those with access can watch.

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