Popflies and mash
Before you sceptical types start brooding that this has been achieved using some clever tricks proprietary to Microsoft and its browser, this isn’t the case, as Popfly will run perfectly well in IE and Firefox, on Windows and OS X. In fact, on my own machine, Firefox runs Popfly faster and more smoothly than it does on my installation of IE7. The Popfly editor is built using Silverlight, a technology that uses XAML and HTTP, and the key to Popfly’s extreme ease of use is its Building Block concept, which connects to websites and exposes their properties. Many prefabricated Blocks are provided to get you started, but you can also create your own Blocks and, if you want, share such custom Blocks with the Popfly community. Although you can write these Blocks in the Popfly editor, it provides no code hinting or syntax checking, so Microsoft currently recommends using Visual Web Developer 2005 Express (which is a free download) to develop Popfly Blocks, although there are plans for the Popfly web application to support the creation of Blocks with code hinting and debugging. Until that time, you can consider the current Popfly web application to be more of a Block uploader than a Block editor.
Do try to get yourself onto the alpha program and start playing with Popfly to create your own mash-ups and widgets: it’s a lot of fun and very satisfying to do, but more to the point look at the web application that is the Popfly Explorer and ask yourself “why can’t my web applications work this well?”
Released at more or less the same time as Popfly is Google’s Mashup Editor, which is a far simpler product, being not much more than a text editor, an RSS feed examiner and a test environment. This isn’t to demean the work Google has done in this area, which has created a lot of the back-end and interconnection technology required to act as a reliable platform on which mash-ups can be built. The editor web application is a much simpler beast than Microsoft’s offering, and as such it doesn’t inspire that initial wow Popfly does.
Google’s Mashup Editor isn’t much more than a text editor running within a web application, and it comes with a selection of sample code to get you started. In fact, the amount of code you need to write is surprisingly small: for example, to read an RSS feed that supplies geo information and then display the results onto a Google Map you just need to type:
This gets the RSS feed and returns the first ten records of it. Then, to create a Google map with pushpins showing the places in the feed, you type:
It’s as simple as that. As with Popfly, the amount of user code needed is astonishingly small; the clever bit is knowing what code you need to write. All the smart stuff with both systems is hidden behind the user interface, and it’s into the writing of the core services that most of the work has been done. The most obvious difference between the two systems is the user interface: there’s no neat dragging of blocks around with the Google Mashup Editor, but, on the other hand, it doesn’t need Silverlight installed on your machine to run; any web browser will do. Microsoft’s approach to mash-ups is to make the ability to create them available to almost anyone, while Google’s solution still currently requires some HTML and programming ability.