A couple of weeks back we discussed the idea of the internet as a platform being one of the defining features of Web 2.0. This week we learned more about how the ‘internet as platform’ functions – namely through the use of web services and API’s.
Web services allow the personalisation of information that is passed through the web to the user. Essentially it is ‘middleware’, re-processing machine-readable data from the server in order to present it in a form that is uniquely tailored to the client. As the client, we neither have to see nor understand how that data is re-processed in order to gain access to it. It is delivered to us in a simple and convenient form by the web service without needing any significant programming or computing knowledge on our part.
For example, I have 2 laptops – one for home use and one for Uni work. How can I have access to my web browsing data from just one machine when I am away from the other? Google allows me to sync my browser data via my Google account; so when I use the Chrome browser from anywhere, I still have access to my bookmarks, passwords, usernames and other saved data.
XML is the ‘language’ of web services, similar to HTML yet much more flexible. Learning to write HTML back in the late 90’s, I discovered that it was basically rigid – HTML ‘tags’ or commands are prescribed and can only be read by certain programs. XML is similar in that it uses such tags and commands, but these can be created by the user and provide unseen, machine-readable metadata. It is also readable by a wide number of programs. For example, object data for the game the Sims is encoded in XML, and can be manually manipulated in order to create custom content.
Nowadays, most programming is done through the use of API’s (Application Programming Interfaces), which essentially hides complex internal structures from the user of the API, thus making it more user-friendly. API’s can be used by other programmers and developers to create their own widgets, gadgets, apps and countless other useful little gizmos which can personalise your data. Hence we get Twitter feed apps for our iPhones and Google Map sat nav on our tablets.
In the ‘real world’, API’s have really brought out the functionality of my website. I am able to embed a slideshow of all my creations onto my website, so users can immediately see what I have to offer. I also have a Revolver Maps gadget embedded into my page, so that I can keep track of where my visitors come from, and who is currently browsing my site. I also have a link to an RSS feed, and a Google +1 gadget added so that people can recommend and keep up to date with my site. The power of the API and the web service lies in the fact that they are so accessible, so flexible, and able to tailor information to both you and your audience. Ten years ago, setting up a sophisticated visitor counter to your website would’ve probably required some technical know-how. Nowadays, thanks to API’s, it’s all there at the click of a button.