REST, hypertext and non-browser clients

I am confused on how a REST api can both be hypertext driven, but also machine readable. Say I design an API and some endpoint lists contents of a collection.

GET /api/companies/

The server should return a list with company resources e.g:


One way would be to generate a hypertext (html) page with <a> links to the respective resources. However I would also like to make it easy for a non-browser client to read this list. For example, some client might want to populates a dropdown gui with companies. In this case returning a html document is inappropriate, and it might be better to return a list in JSON or XML format.

It is not clear to me how REST style can satisfy both. Is there a practical solution or examples of a REST api that is both nice to browsers and non-browser clients?


What you're looking for is nowadays referred to as HATEOAS API's. See this question for examples: Actual examples for HATEOAS (REST-architecture)

The ReST architectural style, as originally defined by Roy Fielding, prescribes "hypertext as the engine for application state" as one of the architectural contraints. However, this concept got more or less "lost in translation" when people started equaling "RESTful API's" with "using the HTTP verbs right" (plus a little more, if you're lucky). (Edit: Providing credence for my assertion are the first and second highest-ratest answers in What exactly is RESTful programming? . The first talks only about HTTP verbs).

Some thoughts on your question: (mainly because the subject keeps fascinating me)

In HATEOAS, standardized media types with precise meaning are very important. It's generally thought to be best to reuse an existing media type when possible, to benefit from general understanding and tooling around this. One popular method is using XML, because it offers both general structure for data and a way to define semantics, i.e. through an XML schema or with namespaces. XML in and by itself is more or less meaningless when considering HATEOAS. The same applies for JSON.

For supporting links, you want to choose a media type that either supports links "natively" (i.e. text/html, application/xhtml+xml) or a media type that allows defining what pieces in the document must be interpreted as links through some embedded metadata, such as XML can with for example XLINK. I don't think you could use application/json because JSON by itself has no pre-defined place to define metadata. I do think that it would be possible to design a media type based on json - call it application/x-descriptive-json - that defines up-front that the JSON document returned must consist of a "header" and "body" property where header may contain further specified metadata. You could also design a media type for JSON just to support embedded links. Simpler media type, less extenisble. I wouldn't be surprised if both things I describe already exist in some form.

To be both nice to browsers and non-browser clients, all it takes is respecting the Accept header. You must assume that a client who asks for text/html is truly happy with text/html. This could be an argument for not using text/html as the media type for your non-browser API entry point. In principle, I think it could work though if the only thing you want is links. Good HTML markup can be very well consumed by non-browser clients. HTML also defines way to do paging, through rel="next", rel="previous".

The three biggest problems of a singular media type for both browsers and non-browsers I see are:

  1. you must ensure all your site html is outputted with non-browser consumption in mind, i.e. embed sufficient metadata. Perhaps add hidden links in some places. It's a bit comparable from thinking about accessibility for visually impaired people: Though now, you're designing for a consumer who cannot read English, or any natural language for that matter. :)
  2. there may be lots of markup and content that may essentially irrelevant to a non-browser client. Think of repeating header and footer text, navigation area's that kind of things.
  3. HTML may simply lack the expressiveness you need. In principle, as soon as you go "think up" some conventions specific to your site (i.e. say rel="original-image means the link to the full-size, original image), then you're not doing strictly HATEOS anymore (at least, that's my understanding). HTML leaves no room for defining new meaning to elements. XML does.

A work-around to problem three might be using XHTML, since XHTML, by the virtue of being XML, does allow specifying new kinds of elements through namespaces.

I see @robert_b_clarke mentioning Microformats, which is relevant in this discussion. It's indeed one way of trying to improve accessibility for non-human agents. The main issue with this from a technical point of view is that it essentially relies on "out-of-band" information. Microformats are not part of the text/html spec. In a way, it's comparable to saying: "Hey, if I say that there's a resource with type A and id X, you can access it at" The example I gave with rel=original-image could be called a micro-format as well. But it is a way to go. "State in your API docs: We serve nicely formatted text/html. Our text/html also embeds the following microformats: ..." You can even define your own ones.

I think the following presentation as a nice down-to-earth explanation of HATEOAS:


I only now read about HTML5 microdata (because of @robert_b_clarke). It seems like HTML5 does provide a way for supplying additional information beyond what's possible with standard HTML tags. Consider what I wrote dated. :) Edit edit: It's only a draft, phew. ;)

Edit 2

Re a "descriptive JSON" format: This has just been announced . They have applied for their own mime type. It's by Yehuda Katz (Ember.js) and Steve Klabnib, who's writing Designing Hypermedia API's.

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