By Jack Schofield
When Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer spoke at last week’s prestigious Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, he announced a public beta test version of Popfly to try to impress the crowd. Because it’s based on Silverlight, Microsoft’s alternative to Adobe Flash, it can certainly do some nice visual tricks. Its practical value is, of course, another matter.
Popfly is an online system where anybody can create a graphical web page, a mashup or a Windows Vista Sidebar gadget by “drag and drop” programming.
The term “mashup” comes from the music business where it is used for mixes made from two or more different songs. In web 2.0 terms, it means combining data from two or more sources. One of the best known mashups takes government crime figures for Chicago and plots them on a Google map of Chicago.
When Yahoo! launched a beta test site for creating mashups in February, it had the idea of streams of data being changed and combined: the result was Yahoo! Pipes. Popfly uses a different kind of imagery that’s much more like object-oriented programming. Everything comes in a red box or block, and you create your mashup by linking red blocks together.
The Popfly toolbox already contains dozens of blocks. Look under Display, for example, and there are blocks such as Bar graph, Carousel, Chat bubbles, Page Turner, Photosphere and Slideshow.
Other blocks offer streams of data, including RSS feeds of news reports, Twitter and Upcoming. There are also blocks such as Combine, Filter, Sort and Timer so you can do things with data along the way. If you can’t find the sort of block you want, you can create one.
Each block contains lines of computer code, so when you link them together, you are actually writing a program. What’s cool is that it doesn’t feel like it.
Popfly has lots of nice visual effects, but I found some things didn’t do what I expected, and it wasn’t always easy to see why.
For example, I did an extremely simple mashup to fish 100 random Paris Hilton pictures from a search engine, and display them in a mini-album on my Facebook profile page. Actually it showed only 20 images, and it didn’t display them on Facebook: it just put a link to the album on Popfly. It was easier to post it to a blog: even I can manage a one-line copy-and-paste operation!
There are several sites doing the same sort of thing as Pipes and Popfly, and Intel has just unveiled MashMaker, promising “Mashups for the Masses”. Google also has the Google Mashup Editor, which is only suitable for programmers. No doubt there will be many more.
Microsoft’s mantra is “developers, developers, developers,” and naturally it wants to make programming accessible to people with no programming skills.
Given enough pre-created blocks, I can imagine lots of people connecting two blocks, or even a few, if it does something they really need. But a mass market? I don’t think so!