For all types of emerging digital businesses, from online marketplaces and telehealth to virtual events and more, chat is becoming an increasingly vital component of community engagement. Rather than build their own, many are opting to integrate chat platforms into their websites and apps, and part of what is included with these ready-made chat solutions are the chat APIs.
But what are is a chat API, and how do you choose the best and integrate the best one for your application? We cover that all here.
First, what is an API?
API is short for application programming interface. API is a set of code that enables data transmission between one software and another. Often you can say that it stands as a connector between the front-end and the back-end of an application.
The API receives requests from the client or user through the front-end and passes them down to the back-end for processing if certain requirements are met. After the request has been processed at the back-end, the API returns a response to the client through the front-end showing whether the client's request was successfully processed or not.
Now, how about chat API?
I am sure that you are already getting ideas on what chat API is.
A chat API is a collection of codes that can be used to provide real-time chat features for in-app chat, or for a chat on a website. It provides access to a back-end chat service & server infrastructure with the stability and broad features required to embed real-time chat inside of your app at a scale suited to your needs from an intimate conversation to a very large chat group.
Illustrating chat API
To illustrate, imagine that you needed to eat and you go to a restaurant. Will you walk straight to the restaurant's kitchen and dish out the meal of your choice? I am sure you wouldn't do that because you do not have such access right even if you knew the location of the kitchen.
Instead of that, you will walk into the dining area and give your request to the waiter. The waiter who knows the location of the kitchen and has access rights will take your request to the kitchen. If your request is available, the waiter will return to you with the dish you request else the waiter tells you it is unavailable.
So chat API is like that waiter. It helps us access the chat features that we need but do not have access to it. The dining area is like the front-end of the application while the kitchen represents the back-end of our application.
Having come to this understanding, it will be easy to confuse chat API for messaging API. Let's see how they differ
Differentiating between chat API and messaging API
We now know what a chat API is, how about a messaging API?
What is a messaging API?
This is a collection of codes or programs provided by messaging app vendors to enable developers access the global carrier networks to facilitate traditional SMS / MMS messaging in addition to modern chat APIs.
So while chat API is concerned with just real-time messaging alone, messaging API is not just concerned with real-time messaging but goes ahead to include SMS which is usually SIM based messaging where only mobile numbers are used to receive messages. Messaging APIs include chat APIs and other APIs used for SMS notifications and bulk SMS.
In summary, it is safe to say that a messaging API can be a chat API but a chat API may not be messaging API.
Services provided by a chat API
There are four basic services provided by chat APIs. Such services are as follows:
1. User-to-User chat service
This service enables users of an application to be able to communicate with each other. No doubt, this is the most common form of chat we see in many chat application.
2. User-to-business chat service
Have you ever been to a website where there is a floating chat interface saying "Hello" or asking you "How may I help you?" or any other message?
That is a user to business chat where businesses get to talk to their users through real-time chat. Many businesses have had to adopt this service as it gives better user experience especially for customer services
3. User-to-service provider chat service
Certain businesses does no interaction with users. Instead, they provide a medium where service providers and users meet and services or products are exchanged for certain compensation. In a case like this, the chat will be between the service providers and their clients (users). Uber and Airbnb are good examples of this.
4. Users-to-broadcaster chat service
Sometimes during radio or TV programs, the general public (audience) is invited to send in their views through a chat platform. In this case, the broadcaster receives messages from a large audience. Everyone in the audience who wishes to make an input might talk in reaction to what the broadcaster is saying or what someone else in the audience has said
Features of a chat API
The features of a modern chat API can be grouped into two:
This includes those features that are building blocks of any regular chat application. They are usually free. It includes:
Support for multiple platforms
File & custom-data transfers
Profanity filters and user blocking
Chat data analytics
Online and offline status indicators
Web-hooks to receive real-time chat events and data on your server
Read receipts, delivery status, and typing indicators
One-on-one and group messaging, and open channel chat
These features are more sophisticated than the basic features. They are not found in every Chat API and are usually paid for. It includes:
APIs to export data and messages
Ability to create marketing or general admin announcements
Channel auto-partitioning and smart throttling of messages
Auto-thumbnail generation for rich media
An interface to plug chatbots into the chat stream
Spam flood protection
Why chat API?
Chat API is very important for a couple of reasons. This includes real-time communication, cost-effectiveness, security, and better user experience. Let's talk more about them.
Chat API provides us the means to be able to communicate with others in real-time. So you do not have to wait a long time before delivering and receiving chat messages from people.
For example, you do not have to record a video of yourself, send it to a friend, and wait for them to send back their video file. You can have whatever conversation in a live video chat like you are there with the person. Isn’t that beautiful?
To build a chat application, you will need to hire a group of developers asides the time it will cost you to be able to finish the application.
Chat API on the other hand, is already made. All you need is to pay a token and plug it into your application. Sometimes, the package you really need might even be free of charge. This will save you money, time and mental stress.
Consider too that it will cost your user less having to chat with you over your website than having to use airtime to call or text you over the cell phone.
Chat application provides us with security of our documents and conversation such that we can use them as storage spaces. Since it is not inflammable or damageable by water, our documents and conversations will be safe.
Since these chat applications provide us with storage spaces, we can store materials here for future reference. It could be an agreement or business contract.
Better user experience
Imagine that you integrate a chat-bot into your application to provide answers to frequently asked questions. That chatbot saves you the time to keep repeating same answer over and over again.
But beyond that is the satisfaction your users get from using you application. They do not have to wait for so long to get a reply on how to fix their issues. You have also been able to keep that user from checking on other options.
Choosing the right chat API
Having seen the importance of chat API, you may be considering integrating one into your application. That is awesome. Yet, there are a few points to consider before making your choice. This includes cost, technology, documentation, services, customization, and Security. Let's expand on these points.
As a business owner, the objective is to make profit. So it wouldn't be wise to spend so much on an exact service or product you can spend so less on if you use a different vendor. So you want to compare different prices from different vendors
Some vendors will even give a free trial period after which you may choose to continue or discontinue. It might be wise to start here.
It is no news that we have so many technologies used in building application today. In view of this, it is important that you choose a chat API that is technologically compatible to your own application. It is best to use a Chat API that is cross technology.
Without a good documentation, it is almost impossible to use a chat API if given to you. With that in mind, it is very important that we go through whatever documentation we are provided with before deciding to use the chat API. If the documentation is not properly done, it might be a ton of work for us using that API. Money can even be lost to a documentation problem.
We pointed out a number of services that a chat API provides. We want to ask our self which of those services we need. If we decide on which service we need, then we can go ahead to check which chat API provides such service.
Freedom is something that we all desire. It is not different when picking a chat API. We need an API that gives us the flexibility to make changes to the chat in order to suit our preference. For example, we might want the chat UI to inherit the color of our application or we might want to be able to manage our users and how they use the app and so on.
Having a high level of customization will provide both the developers and the clients a high level of satisfaction or good user experience
This might be the most important point to consider especially if you are going to be sending very valuable text, documents, videos and so on. You need to be sure that the chat API provides for certain level of encryption on conversations.
If the chat will not be secured and you need to exchange confidential materials, it will be wise to check other chat API.
How chat API can be used to build chat
While various chat API will slightly differ in the way it can be used, there are a few steps that are common in most Chat API. They are:
Get a unique identity with the vendor
Get the chat API
Get the basic code
To demonstrate this, I will use the CometChat API. This is because it meets all the criteria for a good chat API. So here is how it works in CometChat:
Get a unique identity with the vendor
To get your unique identity, go to CometChat Pro and create an account.
In your dashboard, create an app. This will provide you with a unique set of detail.
Follow the instructions to see how you can customize chat app you have built
Chat API as we have seen is very important if we want to have better communication and improve user experience. We were able to differentiate between chat API and messaging API. We also went further to consider things to look out for when making a choice of chat API. In the end, I walked you through how to make use of a chat API using CometChat as a case study because it met all criteria.
I will encourage you to take your time and checkout CometChat Pro documentation and see what more you can do. The things you can do are endless. You are only limited to your imagination.
About the Author
Njoku a software engineer who is interested in building solutions to real world problems and teaching others about the things he knows. Something he really enjoys doing besides writing codes and technical articles is body building.