What Is an API: First and Third Party APIs

by Matt Francis, May 09, 2017

In computer programming, an application programming interface (API) is like a door with a security guard. To pass through, you must play by the rules.
In more technical terms, an API is a set of requirements and regulations. Abide by these and you can gain partial access to a system or program.

What Do APIs Actually Do?

APIs allow internet heavyweights like Facebook, Google and Twitter to let others piggyback on services such as Google Maps. In essence, APIs expose some of a product or service's internal functions in a controlled environment. For example, businesses can use Facebook or Google's API to streamline sign-up on a site or app or Twitter's API to make sharing content quicker and easier.

Third Party APIs

A Third Party API is an API developed by a 3rd party. They are sets of requirements and regulations through which partial access to a 1st parties system or program can be gained.
But how do Third Party APIs and the developers who make them actually fit into things? A Third Party API is like an app on a phone. One business has made a phone and loaded it with a mobile OS. This business is the 1st party. The 1st party's OS can do many things natively, such as send or receive calls and texts, but it has the ability to do so much more. The 1st party didn't have the time or the ability to develop every conceivable capability (such as internet banking), which is why 3rd party developers are allowed to develop and publish internet banking apps (pending approval on the app marketplace).
In this analogy, the original business is a 1st party developer and the texting app is a 1st party app, whereas the internet banking app and its developer are 3rd parties.
Sometimes a business will release an API toolkit, and allow 3rd party developers to build APIs independently. Sometimes, business's will keep access to their product/service locked behind their own (1st party) APIs or have no API at all.
Twitter is one such company, as a result, there is a competitive ecosystem of tools to supercharge your or your business' social media.

APIs in Practice

APIs are an essential part of technology today and 3rd party API integration plays a pivotal role in shaping the APIs we use and the experiences we have.
Let's explore the Apple iPhone and its Location Services API, which is a 1st party API accessed by 3rd party apps.
Location Services is an API and Google Maps is a 3rd party app developed by Google. Google is a 1st party developer on Android phones, but they are a 3rd party developer on iPhone.
For Google Maps to gain access to Apple's location data, which is a sliver of the wider capabilities of iOS, it must go through the Location Services API. This API requires Google be granted explicit permission from the user, in this case me. I have granted Google Maps partial access to my data, and I trust Apple's API to ensure this is indeed the case.
Location Services is a First Party API. Once again, Twitter serves of a prime example of Third Party APIs in practice.
Twitter provides a general API and 3rd parties can operate within that space to create specific APIs and services. The range of 3rd party services ranges from business to consumer and engagement to analytics in focus.

Key Points

  • An application programming interface (API) is a set of requirements and regulations governing partial access to system or program (like a door with a security guard).
  • First Party APIs are APIs made by 1st parties and Third Party APIs are API made by 3rd parties.
  • It's using APIs that business such as Google can expose some of a product or service's internal functions in a controlled environment. For example, Google Maps.