A new product from IBM could help businesses get more from their data by making it easy for workers to mash together simple tools to create something better. Known as mashups, these software applications have been very popular with consumers. But few people have the technical ability to create them. Jeff Schick, vice president of social software for IBM, says that Lotus Mashups will change that, by reducing the technical skill required to combine the applications, and by adding features to protect sensitive data.
“Lotus Mashups will let organizations and communities easily assemble new applications with interoperability across the entire span of [business] tools,” Schick said Monday at the Lotusphere conference in Orlando, FL, when he announced the product. An employee could, for example, combine a map of store locations with store inventory information, so that clicking on the location brings up, say, a stock list. Normally, this would require programming skills. But Schick says that with Lotus Mashups, the process is simple: users connect existing applications by dragging and dropping them onscreen.
The product will ship with many premade mini-applications called widgets that can serve as building blocks that users can put together to start making mashups right away, explains Nicole Carrier, program director of the portal segment for IBM. An included tool will help users get data from the Web or company databases and organize it to create a mashup. The system will also include a catalogue area, where users can upload mashups they have made to share with others. Mashups can also be shared through e-mail links, or by embedding them in Web pages.
Carrier says that Lotus Mashups is part of IBM’s strategy to make business tools for “the younger generations that have been weaned on MySpace and Facebook.” She notes that many business currently use spreadsheets as tools to create simple applications that process data. Mashups, Carrier says, could provide a better way to make some of these applications, particularly because they can be tied to Web services that would help keep data up to date.
“The holy grail for a long time has been to design something that lets the nontechnical person do software engineering,” says John Gerken, a senior architect for the Emerging Internet Technologies Software Group at IBM. “This is a step toward that goal.” The product’s drag-and-drop interface conceals several technical problems that had to be solved to build the software, he says.
Although there’s been an explosion of widgets on the Web in the past year, Gerken notes that in most cases, it’s easy for users to make widgets share space on a Web page, but not to make them share data. “They’re mixable, not mashable,” he says. For example, Facebook users can paper their profiles with a variety of simple applications, but those applications are isolated from each other. In contrast, Mashups allows users to combine widgets, so that taking an action within one widget triggers the others to act too. For example, a user could build an application for tracking stock prices of different companies, using a chart as the central widget. The chart could include company name, location, and ticker symbol. Clicking a line in the chart could send data to several connected widgets, such as one that looks up the company name on Google, one that maps the location of the company headquarters, and one that retrieves the most recent stock price for the company. Gerken adds that IBM is participating in the Open Ajax Foundation’s effort to create standards for widgets, which will hopefully make it more common for widgets from different sources to share data.
In the mashup above, a user has combined an organizational map of a company with employee pictures, profile information from the company directory, and a database of files that each person can update.
To build these applications, a user selects from lists of widgets and data sources and drags them together onscreen. Dropping a list of store locations onto a map widget makes the system automatically plot those locations on a map. Gerken says that a major design challenge was programming the system so that it could understand what the user likely wants it to do in such a situation. To try to solve that problem, the system tries to recognize similarities in data that might not be tagged the same way. It must recognize, for example, that an “address” field is likely the same as a “street address” field.
Gerken says that in order to work for businesses, Mashups also had to be designed to allow administrators to monitor what happens to the company’s data. For example, a popular mashup could strain a company’s database system if it constantly requested data from the same place. The system comes with features that help administrators notice this sort of traffic and respond to it by, for instance, noticing what information is popular and storing it in lighter, more easily accessible ways, Gerken says. Another potential problem with Mashups, he says, is that confidential company data often gets mixed with insecure, publicly available data. The mashup is a derivative product, he says, that might have different access requirements than its sources do. Gerken says that IBM has been looking at this problem through a research project called Damia and will include features from the research in Mashups. But, he says, the features aren’t finalized enough right now for him to elaborate on how, exactly, the product secures data at this point.
Niall Kennedy, a widget consultant in San Francisco, says, “There’s always been a demand for mashups, but the problem has been with the tools available for the interface.” He notes that before Google released tools for developers to use to make mashups with its map data, many developers reverse-engineered those tools in order to build their own applications. Lotus Mashups, Kennedy says, follows “a general trend of things getting adopted in the consumer space before getting a try in the enterprise.”
IBM plans to release Lotus Mashups in the middle of this year.