Web Mashups Made Easy
Software being developed at Intel makes it easy for people with no programming experience to combine data from different Web pages.
The Web, for all its usefulness, is still a fairly unorganized collection of information. For years, programmers have been connecting disparate bits of information by making “mashups,” websites that combine information from two or more sources, such as Google maps and Craigslist rental listings. But mashup making has remained the domain of geeks who know how to program, or at least highly motivated novices who want to learn.
A new research project from Intel Research, in Berkeley, CA, is trying to take some of the mystery out of crafting a mashup. Called Mash Maker, the project aims to let people use their ordinary Web browsers to combine information from different sites. If, for example, you are looking at apartments on Craigslist, you can easily add information about nearby restaurants from Yelp, a recommendation site, essentially augmenting the data on the Craigslist page. With another few clicks of a button, you can put the apartments and Yelp listings on a Google map, which will also appear within the Craigslist page. The next time you visit the Craigslist page, you can reopen the mashup, and it will automatically use new data from the site.
The idea, says Robert Ennals, is to let people create their own custom-made Web. “Right now, the Web is a collection of islands; each has its own information, but they aren’t really interconnected and personalized for you,” he says. “We’re trying to move to where the Web is a single source of interconnected knowledge, presenting information that you want to see the way you want to see it.”
Mash Maker is one of a handful of services and products intended to help the motivated noncoder combine information from different websites. Last year, Microsoft introduced Popfly, a programming environment that makes it simple for nonexperts to build mashups. Yahoo Pipes is another recent project that lets people meld data from myriad sources–for instance, by combining news feeds from Digg and Slashdot that contain the word “software.” (See “A More Personalized Internet?”) And IBM is leading the effort to bring mashup building to the workplace, with Lotus Mashups, a program that lets people combine data from different business applications. (See “IBM to Release Mashup Software.”)
Mash Maker differs mainly in its attempt to use the browser itself as mashup-making tool. Mash Maker is a downloadable program that integrates itself into the Firefox browser (versions for other browsers are planned for the future). Once it’s installed, it can be used on a number of different programming levels, explains Ennals. For the average Web user with no interest in building her own mashups, Mash Maker will suggest premade mashups tailored to the sites she visits. For instance, if she goes to Facebook, it might suggest a mashup that would put the profile pictures of her friends on a map. If she goes to Expedia.com, it might suggest a mashup that adds information about legroom for different flights.
The next level of Mash Maker use, Ennals says, is building your own mashup. To do this, you use widgets, or little programs that appear in a side panel within the browser. To build the previously mentioned mashup of Craigslist, Yelp, and Google maps, the user would go to Craigslist, pull up the listings for a particular neighborhood–say, Bernal Heights in San Francisco–and click on the “address” widget. Immediately, address icons appear next to all the listings on the page. Then the user opens another tab in the browser and goes to the Yelp page, where she searches for restaurants in Bernal Heights and selects the “copy” widget. Going back to the Craigslist page, she selects the “paste” widget, and restaurant review icons pop up next to the address icons. To map both the Craigslist and the Yelp information, she selects the icons for the apartments and restaurant ratings she’s interested in, then clicks the Google Maps widget in the side panel. The mashup can be saved into Mash Maker’s public repository so that others in the community can use it.
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.”