At the most fundamental programming level, Ennals explains, people can help the widgets do their work. The widgets look for information on each page, but often, the information they’re looking for isn’t labeled or categorized. So, Ennals says, Mash Maker lets people identify this information and add labels to it so that, for instance, the map widget can find the addresses on a Craigslist page. In the future, he says, he’d like to build software that can automatically extract information from any Web pages.
“It’s an interesting idea,” Reto Meier, an independent software developer, says of Mash Maker. Meier adds that “tools that make mashups easier are beneficial,” but he’s not quite sure who Intel’s target audience is. He says that Mash Maker might be too complicated for the average Web surfer, but not versatile enough for the programmer, so that neither will be particularly interested. “The masses don’t really want to make mashups,” Meier says. “They want to use websites.” He also suspects that in order for Mash Maker to catch on, there needs to be a fairly large number of useful mashups available, so that people stumble across them more often when they browse the Web.
Currently, there are about 360 user-created mashups, and Ennals hopes that that number will grow as Intel opens the project to more testers in the coming months. (There are currently about 3,000 active users.) There is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that the software works with as many Web pages as possible and has the features that are important to users. Intel plans to release a Web-based programming interface next week so that people can build their own widgets. Right now, however, the company doesn’t plan to turn Mash Maker into a product.
Intel has chosen a unique approach to making easy mashups, says John Montgomery, leader of Microsoft’s Popfly team. Staying within the browser could make it easier for the average person to take advantage of Mash Maker, he says; but it’s a limitation for programmers who want to convert mashups into, say, Facebook applications or screen savers. “Locking yourself into a browser is useful and restrictive,” Montgomery says.
Still, the goal of the Intel researchers is shared by those at Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and the smaller startups working in the area of mashup-making software. “The holy grail is codeless programming,” Montgomery says. “We’re all converging on this idea of end-user programming, which isn’t really programming, coupled with community integration.”