June 13, 2006

I'd Like Some Gravy With My Mashup, Please

"Web 2.0" and "Software as a Service" (or SaaS) have been bandied about as the latest buzzwords. Try to get anyone to define them, and you hear a lot of generalities. However, "Mashups" tend to be a bit more tangible, especially when you throw in some examples.

Simply put, a mashup is "a website or web application that uses content from more than one source to create a completely new service." (from Wikipedia) I'll try using a prior post as an example: Mobiledia offers a free service, the Cell Phone Tower Search.

Just type in the city and state, and up pops a Google map populated with the cell tower locations. How'd they do that? Well, the cell towers are registered with the FCC. They took that information and compiled it into a searchable database. Then, by presenting that information within Google Maps, they provided a simple but very effective graphical interface to display towers within the area. So, they mashed up the FCC information with Google Maps, and provided a completely new service from the pairing.

Mapping mashups are all the rage, simply because they transform data into a visual aid, which is often localized. That makes it a more meaningful, and ultimately more useful, service. Like the above example, it transforms raw, flat data into interactive information. Here's another example: After you've ordered something online, have you ever clicked on the link to track your package and had the information passed from UPS or Fedex? If I'm that interested in seeing where my package is, I'd much rather see its progress charted on a map rather than reading a boring text list of destinations.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised to hear of legal issues arising out of some mashups. For instance, is the data or a service truly open for anyone to mash it up with another service? Some may be limited by their Terms of Service.

With XML and RSS feeds, various Google API's, and more at developers' disposal, expect to see many more mashups. Mashups enable and add value to Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. The possibilities for data mining, real-time monitoring, and especially correlation and new combinations of information, news sources, and other data is only limited by our imaginations. If this is starting to sound like real-time business intelligence to you, then you're getting it. That's the gravy for both the developers and the consumers. I believe many mashups at the consumer level will likely be free and driven by third party revenues or investments, but some may be compelling enough to warrant a subscription fee. At the corporate level, mashups are already being blended into hosted SaaS offerings and new code exchanged within open developer communities.

SaaS is still somewhat controversial, but due to mashups and other improvements, it's starting to gain some serious traction. Let's put it this way -- anything that offers more functionality and flexibility at a lower TCO compels serious consideration. The mind shift has already begun. We used to buy mostly software and products, but are increasingly buying services. Web companies such as Google and Yahoo! are giving companies like Microsoft some serious competition. Just take a look at Google's (or Yahoo!'s) beta offerings. Why would a search engine acquire Blogger and most recently, Writely, a web-based collaborative word processor? Adding online collaboration to a piece of conventional software is arguably another mashup.

Given the dynamic nature of mashups, it's difficult to make any clear prognostications. I think the best mashups will be the ones most transparent to the users (think Amazon.com). But one thing seems certain -- it's going to be an interesting ride, and businesses and consumers alike will see some interesting new online services.

Topic(s):   Web Wizardry
Posted by Jeff Beard