API vs. SDK

Though very similar in meaning, API and SDK may easily be confused with one another. Discover the difference between them so that you won't use them interchangeably in the future.

Software Development Kits (SDK) and Application Programming Interface (API) are critical components of your app’s development. However, these two terms sometimes overlap, often leading to confusion. 

Knowing their differences and how you can take advantage of them can significantly help you improve your application. This piece tackles their distinct features and outlines how you can utilize them to supercharge your app. 

What is an API?  

By definition, APIs are sets of instructions and protocols used to integrate specific functionalities into an application. An API can help connect your apps or projects to external services, enabling seamless data transfer and adding a new feature altogether. 

Let’s take a look at this example from software company Mulesoft explaining the function of an API:  

Imagine you’re sitting at a table in a restaurant with a menu of choices to order from. The kitchen is the part of the “system” that will prepare your order. What is missing is the critical link to communicate your order to the kitchen and deliver your food back to your table. That’s where the waiter or API comes in. The waiter is the messenger – or API – that takes your request or order and tells the kitchen – the system – what to do. Then the waiter delivers the response back to you; in this case, it is the food.

With an API, developers don’t have to worry about creating lots of custom code to enable functionalities, as various APIs exist to fulfill a specific function. As IBM mentioned, APIs allow companies to open up their applications’ data and functionality for third-party developers to use. So if you have a food delivery app and want to verify your user’s number, provide the location, and enable payment without leaving the platform, there’s an available phone, maps, and payment API to perform these actions. 

What is an SDK? 

On the other hand, SDKs are a set of tools used to develop applications for a specific platform. Red Hat mentioned that a typical SDK contains a compiler, debugger, as well as APIs, and any of the following:

  • Documentation
  • Libraries
  • Editors
  • Runtime/development environments
  • Testing/analysis tools
  • Drivers
  • Network protocols

Let’s take the restaurant scenario again. For example, you are a chef. When you’re cooking a dish, you will need ingredients for your recipe; you need the kitchen utensils so you can cook, you need a copy of a recipe to put the meal together, and so on. In the same way, SDK provides all the things you need to create your intended application. 

SDKs are crucial when developing an app for a specific platform. For instance, Apple provides iOS SDKs to developers so they can create applications specifically for iOS. An SDK should add value to a developer. Hence it should be easy to use, provides a thorough explanation of the code used, and adds functionality to an existing app. 

Things to remember 

Now that we defined both, let us recap: 

  • APIs facilitates the communication and integration of software
  • SDK provides the foundation to build an application specifically for a platform
  • SDKs contain APIs; APIs don’t contain SDKs

API, as a part of an SDK, is lightweight and specialized based on the function intended. Meanwhile, SDKs have a collection of utilities to create a new application or add new functionalities. 

API and SDK can elevate your app 

Now that we know the differences, how can you take advantage of both to improve your app? 

Utilizing SDKs with the APIs that meet your needs can significantly enhance your application’s functionality. According to Google, mobile users spend nine out of ten minutes using only their top five favorite apps. So how can your app be one of their top five?  

SDKs can enable powerful in-app features with the corresponding APIs that will substantially affect your app’s user experience. With so many apps out there, you would want yours to stand out in the app market. 

And of course, you just don’t want users to download your app; you would like them to keep and share it with their peers, creating a loyal fanbase for your application. 

If you are a brand and you aim to engage and retain your users, adding social features with an SDK to your app can help raise user engagement through in-app groups. Meanwhile, integrating chat SDK into your application can facilitate 1-on-1 conversations or group interactions, allowing you to host online communities. 

Video SDKs can help you integrate in-app live streaming and stories to your product if you have an entertainment application.  So whether it’s a sports event or a concert broadcasted in your app, this solution can help bring throngs of fans to use your application. On the other hand, if your SDK has a chatbot API that can collect user data, you can use the information you have to create a more personalized user experience, push tailored notifications, and deliver the right content to your users.

In conclusion, API and SDK, regardless of their differences, can both be beneficial for your application. Using SDK with the right APIs can create numerous possibilities to improve your app. Now is the time to find the best SDKs to enhance your in-app user experience, engagement, and retention.