What You Need to Know About Unofficial APIs

What You Need to Know About Unofficial APIs

Unofficial APIs offer a way to access data and services that otherwise don't offer an API. Learn more about how they work and the dangers in using one.

Some APIs provide data we benefit from. Others are hooks into an ecosystem that our users find valuable, and others provide features that are difficult to build. What happens when we need access to data that users expect, but an API doesn’t exist? Maybe you’re building an automotive application that would benefit from pulling driving statistics from the user’s car, but the manufacturer’s API is private. Maybe you are a consumer with a variety of smart-home devices, but they all work with different platforms. This is where unofficial APIs come in. They fill in the gaps where official API offerings don’t exist, or don’t match your needs.

What are unofficial APIs?

An unofficial API is an API created without the express consent or input from the platform owner. Either you, or other software developers, create an interface to interact with a third-party service. The only difference is, this API isn’t sanctioned and sometimes it is explicitly not approved. These end up as REST APIs, GraphQL APIs, and sometimes even client libraries that interface with internal APIs that the provider uses. While the concept can sound nefarious, there is a long history of unofficial APIs.

Types of unofficial APIs

Two people building an API

The least nefarious, and often most widely accept version relates more to the SDKs and clients of an API than the API itself. They can even take the form of miniature applications that interface with the service to make a feature set available that isn’t otherwise implemented. Sometimes a provider doesn’t have the resources to support every platform. In this case, the community takes it upon themselves to develop libraries and SDKs that interface with the provider’s core API. Not officially supported by the platform, but still reliable to some extent thanks to the community that builds them. These types of libraries are very popular amongst emerging languages, and can even eventually find themselves become part of the official client offering of the provider. GitHub’s Octokit is a great example of a third party, unofficial client library (node-github) that eventually became an official library.

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