>Where did those mash-up tools go?

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Just eighteen months ago, mash-up tools were big. The promise of building applications quickly, with minimal development and with context directly reflected within the application (as they are made by SMEs rather than IT resources) remains appealing. They looked to be the perfect tool for civic activists and knowledge workers alike. They were high in Garner’s top ten technologies to watch. The enterprise was starting to take them seriously as a mechanism to reduce crippling data integration challenges and consumers – bored on a diet of pushing links – thought they would be fun and/or a showcase for themselves in much the same way as blogs have been.

Now, the wind has shifted and MSFT’s Popfly and Google’s Mash-up Editor are both gone. Other niche vendors e.g. Sprout Builder similarly disappeared. Of the big players, Intel Mash-up Maker and Yahoo Pipes continue. All of them attempt/have attempted to straddle the void between consumer and enterprise spaces. This is an important distinction since – mash-ups even within the enterprise rely upon an ad-hoc passionate approach rather than formal development. They are typically built at home by passionate non-programmers who want to invest time in a single non-niche tool so whatever they learn is portable (work and social/other organisations etc). Even more so than blogging (which also uses one tool across both domains) a single tool is required – as more learning investment is required. With the exception of SAP’s Visual Composer (if you are an SAP shop), none of the tools mentioned have been particularly successful in either space let alone both. Why is this?

1) No UX standards. For both enterprise and consumer, there are no standard for widgets (or gadgets or web-parts or whatever else you call discrete self-contained UX functions). There are standards for business cards (vCard) – why not widgets?
2) Slow linked open data adoption. More of a consumer inhibitor at the moment. Linked Data is a core component of the Semantic Web vision that uses a specific set of current technologies. It provides a way to readily mix-and-match data in a meaningful way and so is a key enabling technology for mash-ups. Sig.ma is a simple mash-up tool for RDF data. Unlike other data-based mashups which tend to be query-based, Sig.ma is search-based. You enter a search term, the search engine gets your data, you remove the bits that are not relevant and (if you like) re-publish the data again as RDF (or other formats). This is perhaps too simplistic for users right now but it is evolving and could become a potent research tool. Any mash-ups that rely upon open linked data (ideally the best data of all) suffer from a lack of it; although this is changing as Government initiatives in particular publish RDF data for transparency reasons.
3) Insular data integration. Although the various flavours (SOA/ETL/EII/EAI) have been core CIO agenda topics for over five years, they have been mainly confined to the particular enterprise itself; especially in the narrow form of web services and have been of limited success even there. Extranet take-up, where common data is shared between parties in the supply chain, has been leisurely and this is precisely where mash-ups are needed. Very few organisations treat meta-data with the same focus as data. This means, mash-ups have trouble vouching for data currency and lineage which detracts from user take-on. It is possible that the solution to data integration will be the Semantic Web and a greater openness of organisations to share data. If so, we will be waiting some years yet.
4) Industry standards. Have been slow to be adopted. A notable exception here is XBRL for common reporting.
5) SSO. This is not exactly an issue for consumer mash-ups; assuming you are using open linked data but it is still a huge inhibitor to data integration for many organisations.
6) Blogging comparison. Although superficially similar to blogging – mashing (if you are going to do it properly) requires a thorough data understanding and a lot more effort than committing stream-of-conscious thoughts before they float away into the ether (or linking to other peoples work). Blogging is simply an easier way to achieve microcelebrity and also – because the majority of posts are written in the first-person (I think…) they can be defended (if need be) by the simple statement – “These are my opinions”. This is a segueway into a whole minefield of philosophy, politics and culture that is best left alone. People mainly do. Only a small proportion will directly challenge someone’s written thoughts. Publishing a mashup however – where you are vouching for the legitimacy of the data opens you up to direct challenge (people may have provably better data) and so people resist it. Only when the number of single versions of truth in the world become smaller and more consolidated will this situation change.

Popfly showed early promise as a learning tool but never really got past being a Silverlight showcase. Its focus was on looking good (geo mash-ups and slick drag/drop) rather than data integration. It did not use RDF at all. MSFT have been slow to utilise semantic web approaches in general. Some of their media management technologies use RDF in the background but their main focus has been around semantic search through the Semantic Engine. This initiative uses recently acquired Powerset technologies and will be released through SQL Server. PowerPivot has been significantly downsized from its original Project Gemini remit which would have provided not just a potent reporting mash-up environment but the management and support processes and infrastructure to QA and promote the mash-ups throughout the enterprise. This latter point is a key inhibitor to mash-up growth in general.

There are still signs of life in the mash-up tool space. Dapper is advertising focused. NetVibes is portal focussed. Alchemy API takes a content management/annotation approach (similar to Intel Mash-up Maker). Birst takes an analytic portal approach. Jackbe looks interesting; it appears to take a sales analytics approach. Snaplogic is not exactly a mash-up tool but it certainly takes a non-technical approach to data integration. None of them really play in that sweet-spot between enterprise and consumer though.

The parallel economic downturn has influenced mash-up take-on. The enterprise essentially stopped unproven development and consumers have yet to be sold on the concept but let’s face it – the focus on one or two drop-downs for configuration and Google Maps didn’t help either. The future of mash-ups is secure because it is the future of building useful applications quickly by SMEs and that will always be desirable. Five back-end data sources (database, RSS etc.) linked to five middle-ware components (aggregation, integration etc.) and five front-end components (analytics, data entry etc.) generates 125 possible combinations of application straight off the bat. Adding tailoring through filtering, personalisation and general configuration takes in into the thousands. This simple logic guarantees a future at least in the enterprise.

Whether the name “mash-up” has been tainted by its recent hiatus and – like its raison d’etre will need to resurface as part of something new remains to be seen. We can be sure though that the next generation of mash-up activity needs to be three things in order to stick around; interactive, data focused and usable in both enterprise and consumer spaces.

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