Popflies and mash
Programming is obsolete! Not true quite yet, but it got your attention, didn’t it? The latest efforts from Microsoft and Google seem to be moving us in the direction of obsolete programming skills, with both players almost simultaneously announcing alpha code that enables non-programmers to create “mash-ups” that combine the functionality of one website or service with another without writing much or even any code.
Microsoft’s offering is called Popfly, a term fans of the game of American rounders (or baseball as it’s known across the Atlantic) will know means a short high ball. This type of shot is also known as a “popup”, which has other, less salubrious connotations on the web. Popfly is a web application created in Silverlight, which I wrote about back in issue 154. To say Popfly is cool is a considerable understatement – even the most product-weary and cynical of RWC editors has been heard to get excited about this one.
Currently, access to the Popfly alpha site is by invitation only, but you can apply for an invitation anytime online and, as soon as Microsoft processes the next batch of applications, you should be granted access. Both Microsoft and Google are rolling out their alpha offerings to limited numbers of people in this controlled way so as not to render the whole user experience too slow due to alpha code running on a few servers. This can be annoying if you’re one of those who’ve yet to receive an invite, but from the testing point of view it’s probably a sensible way to proceed for the present, Popfly being at times slow enough to load as it is.
If I sound excited, it’s because this technology is exciting. When I describe it to friends and colleagues, the first question they ask me is “what is a mash-up?” Then, if they haven’t lost interest and gone off to find the wine, they usually follow it up with “what would I use one for?” So rather than assume everyone reading this column knows what mash-ups are – and to judge from the postings on the forums there are puzzled people out there – it does seem that some explanation is required. I’ve even seen postings asking whether Popfly is a replacement web browser, because one of its components is called Popfly Explorer. So I thought I’d devote some space here to an explanation.
I first heard the term “mash-up” used when I was researching a PC Pro feature on podcasts, and in this context a mash-up means combining several samples of various music tracks (with varying degrees of musical success) to make a new music track. The sort of mash-ups I’m talking about here, though, are about combining the functionality and data from one website with that of another to produce a new website, or widget, with a different function to either of the originals. An example of this process (which works on Popfly) would be to take a feed from a job search website that returns data about jobs in a certain area and put this feed into a mapping website, so that the result is a map with push pins showing where the jobs are and a description of each job appearing when the mouse is moved over its pin.
Now the programmers among you out there will be saying, so what? So what indeed. We’ve been able to do this sort of thing for some time, as the larger websites exposed their APIs for programmers to use. But the clever thing about Popfly is that exactly the same result can be achieved without writing any code at all. To build such a widget in Popfly, the user simply drags images of blocks around the screen and then joins their inputs and outputs together in a fully graphical environment. But even this amazing ability isn’t what really excites me about Popfly – the truly stunning part about all this is that the whole design environment runs within a browser as a true web application, which looks and feels like a conventional PC application and yet is merely a web page.