The evolving technology has changed our lives in last decade like never before. We can observe the gradual change in every walk of life, our lives have become easy, we can use various kind of gadgets which can perform the desired functions for us.
Though we have many other influential technologies, but mobile technology has changed the technology paradigm in such a way, which was never envisioned few years back. Its influence can be understood by the fact that there are more than 2 billion smartphones now and this count has been changing like a wildfire. This huge number of mobile devices, along with emerging technologies like IA, ML and Internet of Things are dramatically revolutionizing the entire mobile industry.
Every smartphone needs an application, so that it’s end user can utilize its capabilities, thus mobile application development has become a hot cake, and it has become a multi-billion dollar industry, where hundreds of tech organizations are developing different kind of applications and striving hard to deliver a better mobile experience to the end users.
When we talk about mobile app development, we also hear a buzzword, that’s API. In this article we will discuss about the various aspects of APIs and their usage in mobile application development.
What is an API?
API is an Application Programming Interface, which is a link between the two software applications and allows the application to interact with each other. Whenever we use any application on our mobiles, it sends and receives data to and from a remote server via Internet. At the server’s end, the application retrieves the data, interprets it, and processes the required actions and sends it back to your phone. The application in our mobile phones then interprets the incoming data and display that to us in human readable format.
The mobile applications like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram are using API to send messages and many more. For example, we are using different applications on the mobile phone, the application connects to the internet and sends data to the server. The server retrieves that data and interprets and performs the actions and sends back to the phone.
To make it more understandable let us discuss with other examples:
1. When we are ordering food online through Zomato, Swiggy, etc. there are multiple options to choose from, including veg/non-veg, cooking instructions, packaging instructions, quantity. To order the food, we interact with the restaurant website to access their database to check the availability of food items.
2. Whenever we want to check the weather, we usually take help of Google search or Apple’s weather app. These applications help us search the weather-related information on google and populate the current weather conditions and forecast for a specific location. As we know, Google is not in weather forecasting business, hence they have to source this information from a third party. They obtain this weather-related information through an API developed by that 3rd party organization.
3. Another famous API usage is social media log in facility on different websites and platforms. We usually get “log-in using Google, Twitter or Facebook” option to login on websites without creating a separate user profile, this is indeed a function of an API, which keeps a track of our Social media accounts and enables quick login for the users.
Instead of logging-in to the user’s social media accounts, applications with this functionality uses API to authenticate the user with each login.
4. Whenever we make any online payment using PayPal, then it offers a functionality that ensure that only limited information which are required without exposing the sensitive data of the end user or gaining unintended permissions.
When we click on “Pay with PayPal” button, the marketplace application transmit an order to PayPal API, this order contains the information about the amount owed and other payment and item related details, then pop-up authenticates the user and confirm their purchase and process the order.
5. Have you ever thought that travel booking sites aggregates thousands of flights and destinations and show the cheapest option? The answer is through the third-party APIs to collect flight and hotel availabilities from providers. It makes the process fast and automated otherwise without using API the process of booking becomes manual and takes a lot of time from checking the availability and booking.
Today the “API economy” is quickly changing how the people interact from online shopping, hire a cab, photo sharing all this happens through API. Technical innovation is happening at a faster pace because of the API.
Without APIs, the applications get disconnected and confusing. API can also be useful internally for a company in addition to sharing resources across companies. Instead of having duplicate code for each of the other apps, they can share data through one API.
Benefits of Using an API
1. Application service and delivery :
As an APIs has a direct access to the app components, the delivery of information and services is more flexible, and it is easy to manage the application.
2. Better Efficiency :
An API can ensure the availability of content to all the channels and it offers a flexibility to distribute it across in efficient manner.
API offers high degree of automation, where it gives facility to update the workflows and make them rapid, cost effective and more productive.
APIs allow seamless integration of content from any application or site. This guarantees more highly integrated user experience and fluid information delivery.
APIs allow developers and organizations to customize the content and code as per their requirements, this give them freedom of making any sort of changes in their product.
6. Service provision and Adaptation :
Any application or service needs a provisioning or change over the period, here APIs comes to the rescue as it helps us anticipating the changes. API makes provisioning more flexible and it supports data migration in better manner.
Types of API’s:
There are four types of APIs:
- Open APIs: These as also known as Public APIs, due to their public availability. These API’s are available to all without any sort of restrictions.
- Partner APIs: For using such APIs, software firms or developer need specific rights and licenses to access such types of API, as these are not available to the public.
- Internal APIs: These are also known as private APIs due to their limited scope of usage. These API’s are developed for internal use within an enterprise, and exposure of such API’s are limited to Enterprise’s internal systems only. An Enterprise can utilize such APIs to its services, products, and end users experience.
- Composite APIs: These APIs amalgamate different kind of data APIs and services. Such API’s offer ability to speed up the execution process and enhance the performance of web interface listeners.
Web Services API vs Mobile APIs
Web Service APIs:
1. Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) : This protocol utilizes XML as a format to execute the transfer of data. Its primary function is to develop the structure of methods and messages of communication. It uses WSDL (Web Service Definition Language) to display the definition of its interface.
2. XML-Remote Procedure Call: This API uses specific XML format to transfer the data over the network, rather than using the proprietary XML format used by SOAP. It is older and simpler that SOAP and it utilizes lesser bandwidth for communication.
3. JSON-Remote Procedure Call: It has lot of similarity with XML-RPC; however, it uses JSON format to transfer the data instead of XML format.
4. Representational State Transfer (REST): It is an architectural principle, rather a protocol like its competitors.
API for Mobile Apps
One of the most used mobile app ecosystems is Facebook, which offers different kind of APIs to perform different kind of functions. If you want to shop online using a mobile app, then an app could use PayPal API or any other API which may allow us to make payments easily.
In a layman language, we can say that an API for mobile application allow end users to interact with other applications and offers a superior mobile app experience. All we need an integration of API with our mobile app, rather than developing additional features.
iOS Rest API
A Rest API is an API that uses HTTP requests while managing and handling the data. It uses functions to PUT, GET, Delete or POST the data. REST is the most used style for designing APIs, especially in the mobile world. It is a de-facto choice for building the APIs, which enable users to connect and interact with cloud services and utilized by sites such as Amazon, Google, and Twitter.
There are a few things which need our attention:
- We need to have a better understanding of web services. The web services are built upon REST architecture, that returns data in JSON format.
- We must have in-depth understanding of the function of HTTP protocol. The REST APIs depends on HTTP protocol, while managing and handling the data. One should be familiar with the way HTTP uses URLs, transfers the data, and expresses remote actions.
- Every RESTful API offers different URLs to transmit the data, hence it is very much required to map the URL’s to make requests work efficiently.
Should we Build or Buy an API?
There are two choices you can take when developing, you can build yourself or you can buy by integrating with already existing API.
Buying an API is the easiest and quickest option as It saves time and money as it requires less development efforts of developers, as we do not have to develop an API from the scratch. Building an API requires more developer expertise and experience since this is a complex process, hence using an already existing app is much easier.
Some renowned websites like RapidAPI offers customers to discover, assess, and buy existing APIs. It is recommended to search and try the API’s available first, so that we will not be putting the efforts to reinvent. There are a lot of APIs available in market, both paid and free, that can be easily integrated into mobile application.
Let us take an example: Uber makes use of third-party APIs for their mobile app, multiple APIs works together to enhance the fundamental features of the application, like messaging, database drivers, usage of GPS data etc.
Things we need to keep in mind while building an API
If we are developing our own API, then the best option is “common architecture” which is the baseline for API which most experienced developers use. The four different types of common architecture are:
- Pragmatic REST- It is perfect for both mobile and web applications.
- Web service
The most used architectures for mobile app development are Pragmatic REST and Event-driven. Hypermedia is mostly used with web applications; however, most developers are not familiar with this design. On the other hand, the Web service is not known for mobile apps optimization.
Apps for instant messages, games for multiple players, and video chat applications are all suitable for event-driven architecture.
Storage and Database decision
While developing an API, it is extremely important to make the decision to choose the right kind of Database and Storage for that. The type of database we may use is not that much important, however, the usage of entity ID is quite important, we must use randomly generated UUIDs instead of a sequential UUID. This helps to secure the resources by making IDs much difficult to predict.
When it comes to selecting the right database to store the data, we may consider a relational database like MariaDB or MySQL. We may use MongoDB Database development if our requirement is to use a NoSQL database. Sometimes we may have to use a hybrid database like PostgreSQL, that offers both relational storage and document storage support. The database which you use depends on the kind of data you may be using.
- It is highly reliable and stable.
- Data is well structured, rigid, and defined; hence it encounters less data mismatch bugs.
- Lots of Libraries, frameworks, and tools to leverage.
- Scaling required extensive domain knowledge.
- It has No tables, non-relational structure with no schema.
- It offers better scaling abilities than a traditional SQL based databases.
- Flexible, mix relational data with model-independent data.
- It offers additional features and tools for Database administrators.
Cloud Document Storage
Cost effective solutions like Amazon S3 Buckets could be used, which helps us storing huge sets of whole documents.
Documenting the API Process
It is always recommended to document the process of developing an API and keep a track of all the efforts we have put. Having clear documents will help us maintain the history and current state of API and making future updates easier. This process helps us while distributing the API on marketplace, as it facilitates other mobile applications to make use of your API, and it also acts as a reference document for the developers who will work to integrate your API with their respective applications and codes.
If you are building your API or using a third-party API, security plays a crucial role for mobile app development. An API will face the access control mechanism, secret keys, and privacy controls, that keeps the backend system and data secure. Security is a paramount concern and necessity in today’s tech world when it comes to confidential and sensitive data along with high value monetary transactions. Earlier, APIs used to have their customized security protocols and controls, which used be little bit complex, however, currently we have standards like TLS, Open ID connect and OAuth2, that help us in simplification of the entire process.
- OAuth2: It is an authorization framework, that works by granting application a limited access to the user accounts on HTTP services such as Facebook and Google. Here User authentication is assigned to the service which host the account information and allows account access by the third-party applications.
- TLS : It is known as Transport Layer Security protocol, which is a cryptographic protocol that facilitates an end to end communications security over the Data networks. It is also used for securing the enterprise communications and online monetary transactions.
- Open ID Connect: This acts as a simple layer that works on the top of an OAuth2 protocol. It helps clients to validate an end user’s identity and profile information, which is based on a thorough authentication conducted by dedicated authorization server. Open ID connect helps the web based and Mobile clients to receive and request the necessary information about users and their authenticated sessions.
Implementing RESTful API
- The biggest decisions when implementing RESTful API is the location for your server hosting. You can host your server, or you can use cloud hosting.
- It is important to protect your RESTful API system with encryption, monitoring, and automated backups.
OAuth2.0 is known as one of the most secure ways to protect your RESTful API. This is much safer and easier to just use existing methods such as OAuth2.0.
- This is to make sure that all your passwords and other sensitive data do not get stored in plain text, always encrypt this information.
- When implement RESTful API one question should come in mind that the cost based on your usage. How much will it increase when the usage goes up?
Some features like Development, production, and staging that could potentially let you set multiple environments. Using the correct tool can help us implement the RESTful API in easier manner.
Tools which help with RESTful API
It has a simple design. Slate helps you create beautiful, intelligent, responsive API documentation. You can use GitHub as a host for this tool. With slate, everything gets written in Markdown, so it is easy for developers to understand and edit. You can write code in multiple languages and everything on the same page.
To use the slate, you need:
- Ruby (version2.3.1 or newer)
- OS X or Linux
The Apiary blueprint is open source. It focuses on design components. You must have plain text editor before start using Apiary. The recommended switching the syntax to Markdown for a more enhanced experience.
It also has an Open-source Tool. It allows you to create RESTful API with a stabilized workflow, you will benefit from automated updates. Their libraries have server templates the most popular coding languages with plugins.
Best Practices to use API for rapid and Smart Mobile app development
- We need to envision the end-product and must invest for the stack and other technical resources to create highly responsive and interactive digital experiences for the end users. People usually make modifications and develop on their existing application to make them efficient and fast, but if they have slow APIs then end user may face poor experience.
- We must ensure the reduction of API calls and network chatter, that is responsible for draining of battery of the mobile device. Mobile applications are developed in such a way that they must make multiple service calls to execute a transaction on a specific screen. While developing a front-end API, we must ensure that it executes a single API call per screen, as a greater number of service calls may result in low responsiveness, poor performance and may drain the battery drastically.
- Move points of integration from large systems to a microservices architecture to meet the burgeoning demands for new digital experiences: As the enterprises invest in APIs the high demand and the need for scalability created the need to break up the large system into small services. This is called a micro-service. Micro-service architecture produces a decoupled API that is simpler to create, implement, maintain, and consume
- We must use API management tools and coupled with the above best practices; it will offer an exceptional digital services for the end users.
The constant collaboration between developers working on the client apps and backend ensures continual progress is achieved. The less time we spend on guessing on how API works in every situation, the more time we spend in building out the features that make our apps unique.
APIs are indeed an integral part of mobile application development ecosystem. We can use them to widely extend the capabilities of an existing mobile application to a great extent. APIs offer seamless flexibility and opportunity of innovation to the developers. It is very much understood that without APIs, communication between apps would be suffocated and developers would be re-writing the code that performed the same functionality.
APIs are used not only for simple functions like sharing photos with friends, but also for performing complex operations and real time functions. As the world moving ahead with the technical revolution, APIs will be having a bigger role powering and equipping the mobile apps and websites we use every day.
Rahul Mathur is the founder and managing director of ARKA Softwares, a company renowned for its outstanding mobile app development and web development solutions as well as specialized in Android and iOS app development. Delivering high-end modern solutions to all over the globe, Rahul takes pleasure in sharing his experiences and views on latest technological trends.