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 specification can take many forms, but often includes specifications for subroutine, , 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.
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.
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 .
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. Tools such as SWIG and F2PY, a Fortran-to-Python interface generator, facilitate the creation of such interfaces.
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.
Linux and Berkeley Software Distribution are examples of operating systems that implement the POSIX APIs.
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".
An API differs from an application binary interface (ABI) in that an API is source code based while an ABI is Binary file based. For instance, POSIX provides APIs while the Linux Standard Base provides an ABI.
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.
Several authors have created recommendations for how to design APIs, such as Joshua Bloch, Kin Lane, and Michi Henning. Patterns for the design and evolution of remote APIs are covered in a series of EuroPLoP papers.
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.
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.
Client code may contain innovative or opportunistic usages that were not intended by the API designers. In other words, for a library with a significant user base, when an element becomes part of the public API, it may be used in diverse ways.
Documentation is crucial for the development and maintenance of applications using the API. API documentation is traditionally found in documentation files but can also be found in social media such as blogs, forums, and Q&A websites.
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.
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 safety, or that a decrement and cancel protocol averts self-trading. 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.
API documentation can be enriched with metadata information like . This metadata can be used by the compiler, tools, and by the run-time environment to implement custom behaviors or custom handling..
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.
In 2014, however, Alsup's ruling was overturned on appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, though the question of whether such use of APIs constitutes fair use was left unresolved.
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. 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. In 2019, Google appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States over both the copyrightability and fair use rulings.