[LINK] Silverlight application, Popfly

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Sun Feb 10 22:15:36 EST 2008


Mashups Are Breaking the Mold at Microsoft 

By J MARKOFF <www.nytimes.com>
Published:  February 10, 2008

REDMOND, Wash. — TUCKED away in a building on this forested corporate
campus, John Montgomery and his team of 17 programmers might be more at
home in Silicon Valley than at Microsoft.

Compared with its tenacious Internet competitors like Google and Yahoo,
Microsoft is generally still viewed as being more of the shrink-wrapped
software generation than the Web 2.0 world.

In Silicon Valley today, software is increasingly delivered as a Web
service, it is often put together by teams of programmers who might be
scattered on three continents, it’s often free to users, and Web surfers
usually do the testing soon after the first prototype is complete.

By contrast, Microsoft has long been a software engineering culture in
which huge projects like Windows Vista are developed and tested by teams
of hundreds, and whose completion time is measured in a large fraction of
decades.

Although it is not yet widely visible to the outside world, some people
inside Microsoft are beginning to break that mold.

Mr. Montgomery, a veteran product manager who has also worked as a
computer industry writer and editor, is an example of how it just might be
possible to teach dinosaurs to dance.

Last fall, his team introduced an intriguing software Web service called
Popfly that is intended to make it possible for nonprogrammers to plug
together Web components and data sources quickly to create useful new Web
services. For example, news feeds could be added to digital images, or
data lists to maps. <http://www.popfly.com/>

Introduced at the Web 2.0 conference last year by Steven A. Ballmer,
Microsoft’s chief executive, Popfly was picked by PC World magazine as one
of the most innovative computing and consumer electronics products of
2007. It has garnered more than 100,000 users — the company says the exact
number is confidential — and now has a library of more than 50,000
“mashups”: new components or Web pages that have been created in a visual
snap-together fashion, like Lego blocks.

The mashup is at the heart of a generation of Lego-style software that is
emblematic of the second generation of the Internet. Both Google and Yahoo
have developed tools to help Web users display apartment rentals on maps,
or build complicated Web sites like TripTouch.com, which is intended to
offer diverse local information for travelers.

The Popfly programmers, however, have gone a step further in an effort to
design a tool that is intended for a generation of Web users who are
familiar with the Internet but are not skilled programmers.

A user might take Popfly and mash up a list of Amazon book recommendations
with the Seattle Library book catalog on the Web, he said, and receive a
notification when the waiting list for a particular book was down to zero. 

“This is not just a passive experience,” Mr. Montgomery said. “You can 
take this stuff and use it in new ways.” He now sees his target audience 
as people who aren't professional developers but who work with information.

Popfly, he said, is for “the 21- to 27-year-old crowd who grew up on the
Web. They have never known a world without eBay, Amazon, or Google,” he
added. “They assume that when you create a piece of software it will be
net-connected and will have an innate sense of who your friends are.”

Microsoft is certainly not alone in seeing this kind of an opportunity. 

Yahoo offers a widely used tool call Yahoo Pipes that offers some of the
same capabilities as Popfly, and Google has designed a “mashup editor” for
more skilled programmers.

But Montgomery sees Popfly as a more ambitious and comprehensive effort.
He also thinks that it could turn into a general educational tool for 
nonprogrammers.

That is what prompted him to visit an introductory computing course in
December at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., where the computer
scientist Mark Frydenberg is using Popfly to teach his students how to
interact with digital data in new ways.

So far, students’ projects have run the gamut from simple calculators or
clocks that can be displayed on a Web page, to World of Warcraft blocks
that make it possible to connect the multiplayer fantasy game to other Web
services like Facebook.

Mr. Frydenberg said he believed that Popfly would be a perfect educational
tool for the Bentley students, because the college has a business focus.

“This will help the students think about merging data from two different
sources. That’s a problem that happens in business all the time.”

If Popfly can become that kind of a tool widely used on the Web, it will
be an important quiver in the strategy that was started in 2005 by Ray
Ozzie, who is now Microsoft’s chief software architect. 

“His message was that the only interesting software is going to be
software that is connected to the Web and we have to work on that,” Mr.
Montgomery said.]

At the time, Mr. Montgomery was the product manager of the company’s .Net
software business, which had been the focus of Microsoft’s previous
Internet strategy. But he quickly realized that Microsoft had to reach a
much broader audience than its core base of professional developers.

Mr. Montgomery was intrigued by the phenomenon of 13-year-olds who were
“tricking out” their MySpace pages with “digital bling.” They didn’t
realize it, but by cutting and pasting snippets of code together, they were
programming, he said.

The largest challenge facing the Microsoft team of Popfly developers will
be to gain the acceptance of the broader Web world. Because the company
chose to design Popfly using a Microsoft Web graphics and animation
technology called Silverlight, it will be treated with suspicion by an
Internet universe that is increasingly committed to open standards.

Silverlight is an alternative developed by Microsoft to compete against
Adobe’s Flash and, more recently, Flex systems, that are now used
ubiquitously by Web developers.

Mr. Montgomery will also have to overcome the skepticism with which many
Internet veterans now view Microsoft.

“Popfly shows me that Microsoft still thinks this is all about software,
rather than about accumulating data via network effects, which to me is
the core of Web 2.0,” said Tim O’Reilly, the founder and chief executive
of O’Reilly Media, a print and online publisher. “They are using Popfly to
push Silverlight, rather than really trying to get into the mashup game.”

For his part, Mr. Montgomery believes that Popfly does have some very big
ideas to offer the Web world. He is following in an important tradition
that began in the 1960s with computer languages like Logo and Smalltalk,
which were aimed at unlocking the power of computing for nontechnical
users. Today he is betting that Popfly will offer a simple way to give the
power of programming to non-programmers.
--

Cheers, people
Stephen Loosley
Victoria, Australia


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