Ballmer Unveils Beta of Facebook Tool

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer today unveiled the beta version of Popfly, its Web-dev tool for non-developers.

Ballmer showcased Microsoft's Silverlight-based mashup maker during a Q&A session at the second annual Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Popfly is an online tool for creating Web-based composite apps, widgets and live Web pages that requires little-to-no coding. Ballmer referred to Popfly as "a tool for end users, not necessarily for codeheads."

The demo and release come amid ongoing speculation that Microsoft may be looking at acquiring a stake in the popular social networking site, while at other times Redmond has outright dismissed Facebook as a potential rival. That doesn't appear to have changed. "We've got a great partnership with Facebook on the advertising side," Ballmer said when asked about the partnership, though looking to avoid discussing future investment. "We'll see where it takes us."

But when asked in the by journalist and professor John Battelle about the thousands of coders developing for Facebook, Ballmer replied, "I don't look at it and see it as a threat. They've done a really nice job on the developer platform. Basically, any really exciting application will have a developer story, and yet it doesn't really replace the operating system."

Dan Fernandez, Microsoft's lead product manager for the Popfly mashup toolset and Visual Studio Express, joined Ballmer in the demo of the Popfly beta by creating a series of mashups that combined photos from the popular Facebook social-networking site, a Whack-a-Mole-type game and a blogosphere popularity evaluator based on Technorati searches. He built the mashups by dragging and dropping code blocks, and without actually writing any code.

The new Popfly public beta also allows users to publish applications directly to Facebook. Microsoft announced a partnership with Facebook earlier this year. Facebook supports Silverlight, and the two companies collaborated on the Facebook Developer Toolkit to provide tools for coders using Popfly and Visual Studio Express.

Popfly is available free. It supports the Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox browsers. Ballmer appeared at the Web 2.0 Summit before a standing-room-only crowd gathered here at the Palace Hotel. Talking with conference co-host John Battelle, he touched on several topics, including his company's acquisition plans and its competition with Google.

"Microsoft will continue to invest in buying technology, products and market share," Ballmer said. "We'll buy 20 companies a year consistently for the next five years for anywhere between 50 million and one billion bucks."

He pointedly left the acquisition door open for open sourcers, saying that Microsoft's expansion plans do not rule out buying companies with some non-proprietary tech. "We don't want to discourage people who would talk with us just because they do some open source," he said.

Ballmer skirted questions about Google, referring to the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine juggernaut, which he earlier this year called "a one-trick pony." He tempered that earlier comment by saying he that was referring specifically to Google's focus on search, which said is a common phenomenon in high tech.

"There's one thing true about most tech companies," he said, "they start in one area, and then fill out around that coreā€¦ What's unique about Microsoft is that we started as a desktop software company, and now we have a large enterprise business. Now we've moved into devices and entertainment, and we're moving into advertising and the Web."

"We're trying to be a three- and four-trick pony," he added.

The Popfly beta is available here.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].