Say you want to add a chat feature to your app. There are a few different ways to go about it. One of these is using a chat API. But what exactly is that, and why would you want to use it? This article will cover these questions and highlight the chat API category. It will also touch upon the different types of chat APIs to help you decide what’s suitable for your needs.

Table of contents:

  • What is a chat API
  • Types of chat APIs
  • How to add a chat API to your app
  • Final remarks

What is a chat API?

Let’s start from the beginning. What even is an API? Put simply, an Application Programming Interface (API) is a way for two pieces of software to talk to each other. Think of it as a lingua franca—such as English—in a world filled with different languages. APIs are popular for web applications as they make development much faster. It’s quite inefficient to reinvent the wheel every time and for every need. Further, it allows a team of developers to fine-tune these functions by focusing on them and nothing else. So, you get access to the most optimal ways of building those components without having to do it yourself.

While talking on the internet may seem simple, it is a complicated process with many moving parts. Chat APIs are, thus, especially useful for this purpose. After all, you want to add chat to your app, not build a chat app itself, right?

Now, let’s talk about the types of chat features you can build. The most common use cases are direct messages, group chat, live chat, and live streaming. While most chat APIs support these, many will specialize in a particular one. Some will be better for building direct messages into a marketplace, while others make more sense for team chat. Let’s go over some standard features chat APIs provide to understand them better.

Universality

Different platforms have different requirements and frameworks. This is particularly true for the parts involved in messaging. Chat APIs ensure that your app’s chat feature will work regardless of the platform. They also keep abreast of the frequent updates these platforms receive.

Sending and receiving messages

Making sure the right messages are sent to the right recipients and at the correct times can be a logistical nightmare. Having to do so simultaneously for hundreds or thousands of users adds to that. Chat APIs ensure that everything is kept up-to-date for each user, providing a seamless experience.

The server

To handle messaging, one needs to store messages in a database and serve them when and where required. Such a backend requires time and developmental expertise, which you may not have space for in your project. Moreover, frontend-only apps would need to expand their scope considerably to integrate chat. An API uses its own servers and databases to take care of this.

Flexibility and scalability

Your app may not require all the features an API provides. For example, you may only want direct messaging. Chat APIs tend to be modular, allowing you to use as much or as little as you want. You can consume certain features foregoing the bloat others would introduce. Your needs are not static either. In the future, you may require group messaging, chat rooms, or live stream chat. Any of these can be added one by one and when required. As your app grows, you will need more resources to manage your users’ chats. Most Chat APIs automatically scale up—or down—to the size of your app while ensuring you pay for only what you use.

The chat UI

Its usability and design will make or break chat in your app for many users. Some chat APIs come with a UI design kit and components or a completely pre-built chat UI, while others do not provide the front end. The former makes it easy to have an attractive UI that considers all aspects of good UX. The chat UI can also be highly customizable, allowing you to tweak them to match your brand.

Analytics

Being able to oversee how chat is being used on your app can be indispensable. Chat APIs can provide analytics for messages sent between users. It may include the number and frequency of messages, amount of users, periods of activity, or even a detailed conversation history.

Privacy and security

User concerns about their security on the internet have risen sharply over the past decade. Ensuring you have all your bases covered when handling potentially sensitive user data is a job in itself. An API takes this off your hands, keeping up with the ever-expanding world of cybersecurity.

Types of chat APIs

Within the world of chat APIs, you are faced with choosing between many different services. These can roughly be divided into three categories.

Platforms

You’ve surely heard of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Google Chat. Not only are these standalone messaging apps, but they each also provide an API. On the one hand, these are widely-known names that most people would be familiar with. It may inspire confidence in potential users and urge them to chat through your app. On the other, however, they can be pretty restrictive. Users must sign up for these respective services to chat on your app. It can be quite off-putting, especially for those who have an ethical opposition to any of these brands. The privacy scandals many of these platforms have been embroiled in don’t help things either.

Open source

On the other end of the spectrum, open-source APIs give you complete control over your chat. You can use the API and download and tweak the code yourself. It can also be self-hosted for further control. This openness comes with a few caveats, though. Often, you’ll need to stay on your toes to keep your app updated, especially if you self-host the API. Since anyone can download them, they can also be susceptible to more security threats.

Moreover, as open source projects tend to have less workforce, they can also be slow to adopt new features or struggle to stay afloat. Also, these APIs rarely come with a pre-built UI, leaving you to do that work yourself. The end-to-end cost, too, can be hard to evaluate when starting the project.

Proprietary services

Nestled between the big platforms and the lesser-known open source projects are proprietary chat APIs. They don’t have the brand recognition or infrastructure of the tech giants, nor do they provide the control open source APIs offer. They offer a good mix of the two, making them a good option for some apps. With a plug-and-play philosophy, these services give you the tools you need, taking care of the rest themselves. You don’t have to host them. Make sure they stay secure and worry about them becoming defunct anytime soon. They don’t require users to sign up with a third-party service; having your own chat can make your app feel more premium. Furthermore, some of them ship with pre-built UIs, allowing you to get them running quicker. One such example of an API is TalkJS, and now we’ll show you how easy it is t set up.

Adding a chat API to your app

Let’s go further and see how easy it is to add direct messages using the TalkJS chat API. The code below is almost all you need to add a full-fledged chat component to your app. Below the code is an example of the pre-built chat UI you can further customize by using TalkJS Themes. Just a few more tweaks from the TalkJS’ quickstart guide, and you’re done.

<!--Add in your page’s <head>-->

<script>

(function(t,a,l,k,j,s){

s=a.createElement('script');s.async=1;s.src="https://cdn.talkjs.com/talk.js";a.head.appendChild(s)

;k=t.Promise;t.Talk={v:3,ready:{then:function(f){if(k)return new k(function(r,e){l.push([f,r,e])});l

.push([f])},catch:function(){return k&&new k()},c:l}};})(window,document,[]);

</script><!--Add in the <body>--><div id="talkjs-container" style="width: 90%; margin: 30px; height: 500px">

<i>Loading chat...</i>

</div>

<!--Add at the end of your <body>-->

async function setup() {

await Talk.ready;

const me = new Talk.User({

id: '123456',

name: 'Alice',

email: 'alice@example.com',

welcomeMessage: 'Hey there! How are you? :-)',

});

const session = new Talk.Session({

appId: 'tQNvAG1x',

me: me,

});

const other = new Talk.User({

id: '654321',

name: 'Sebastian',

email: 'Sebastian@example.com',

welcomeMessage: 'Hey, how can I help?',

});

const conversation = session.getOrCreateConversation(

Talk.oneOnOneId(me, other)

);

conversation.setParticipant(me);

conversation.setParticipant(other);

const inbox = session.createInbox();

inbox.select(conversation);

inbox.mount(document.getElementById('talkjs-container'));

}

setup();

Example of the TalkJS pre-built UI that was customized with Themes.

Final remarks

Chat APIs provide a quick and easy way to add a messaging service to your app. The many parts required to make such a feature work—UI, universality, messaging, notifications, security, scalability, and analytics—require specialized teams and take time. Using an API allows you to focus on your app's core concept while reducing the time needed to get it to production. If your app is largely front-end focused, these APIs are a no-brainer. While there are plenty of options in the market, proprietary services such as TalkJS offer the best mix of flexibility and ease of use. It takes just a few lines of code to add chat to your app.

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