IBM's Mashup Play
- By John K. Waters
IBM turned up the spotlight on enterprise, user-enabled application development last week with the announcement that a free trial version of its Mashup Center will be hosted on the Web, allowing non-technical business people to try their hand at mashup making.
The release of the trial version comes on the heels of early trials at Boeing Corporation and international retailer the Carrefour Group, the company said. IBM plans to make a commercial version available later this year.
The Mashup Center aims to provide moderately tech-savvy non-coders with tools for creating what are sometimes called "situational applications," but are better known as mashups. It comes with a drag-and-drop, browser-based tool for assembling new mashup components from personal, enterprise and Web sources. It includes a set of pre-built widgets and connectors and a catalog for finding and sharing other widgets and mashups. It also includes some built-in Web 2.0 community features, such as ratings, tagging and commenting tools, which guide uses the to the most valuable and useful widgets. The hosted version will include pre-built widgets from IBM partners; the company named two -- StrikeIron and Kapow Technologies -- in the announcement, but promised more in the future.
"This is about end-user empowerment," said Anant Jhingran, CTO of information management in IBM's software group. "In the situational application world, it's about the non-technical people who say, I know what I want and I want to quickly assemble the relevant information for me."
The idea, Jhingran said, is to allow non-technical users to take information from a wide variety of sources, and mix, filter, and mash that info together to create new information sources and output in different forms, such as RSS, ATOM and XML. Using IBM's mashup technology, users will be able to "exploit standards and Web-based technology to gain access to information," he said, but also to access info tucked securely within the company. Along with tools for managing Web-based information sources, the Mashup Center comes with tools for managing information feeds from enterprise sources.
By allowing non-technical users to merge, transform, filter, annotate and publish information in new formats, the Mashup Center helps them to create "a single view of disparate sets of information in a highly re-usable manner," Jhingran said. Feeds are an easy way to service-enable systems that do not natively provide RESTful interfaces, and thus provide an on-ramp for Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), he added.
What IBM is offering here, said IDC analyst Kathy Quirk, is a full suite of products designed to address the needs of developers, while providing a front-end, self-service mashup composition product for business users.
"Demand for mashup capabilities is being driven by the business users who want easier access to enterprise data," Quirk says. "Mashups hold the promise of widening access to enterprise data by freeing it from the application in which it is stored. For some IT organizations, mashups provide a business-ready proving ground for the investments they have made in an SOA."
The chief challenge mashup pose for IT organizations, she added, lies in how they unlock this data while maintaining enterprise standards for security and governance.
Gartner analyst Anthony Bradley credits IBM with being the first major enterprise player to put together a "coherent mashup platform," but he hastens to add that Big Blue is hardly the first to this market. Boutique players, such as Nexaweb, JackBe and Serena, have been there for a while with compelling offerings. And some bigger companies have taken the mashup plunge, including BEA/Oracle (Aqualogic Pages), Tibco (PageBus), and Microsoft (Popfly, for consumers), among others.
"The entry of such a big player into this market is a double-edged sword for the boutique vendors," Bradley observed. "IBM's entry will give this market some validity, but now they have this really big player to compete with. It starts the window closing, so to speak. It's just a matter of time now before Oracle gets its mashup act together, and Microsoft recognizes that the enterprise is a viable market."
The business case for mashups is pretty clear, Bradley says. "It's about application agility through user-driven composition," he said. "Think about how quickly your business environment changes. Now think about how quickly your enterprise applications change. There's a huge gap between constantly changing and glacially changing. This is where mashups play; they allow power users to build applications very quickly that may be totally disposable. They enable what I call the long-tail of applications."
"Long-tail applications" is Bradley's label for this newish breed of situational applications. It's a nod to journalist Chris Anderson's concept of niche market strategies, first explored in an October 2004 Wired magazine article, and later in a book. "Now, instead of building large applications for roles that apply to many users, you can build apps quickly, for low cost, that address individuals in the long tail," he added.
Why should developers care about this announcement? "In a word, leverage," said Bradley. "Instead of building the finished application, which can take forever and is ultimately used by a relatively small number of people, they can build a repository of mashable components that end users can in a variety of ways, and that way gain leverage into that long tail."
Quirk agreed: "You can make the argument that the upfront work could save [developers] time down the road. It's true that they have to invest time to enable the framework for composition, enable the data services, and handle security and governance issues. That's why I am currently seeing that people prefer to deploy mashups within a portal infrastructure to take advantage of existing infrastructure. But, in the long run, if you truly can enable more self-service in your user community, you can reduce pent-up demand for applications as people will be able to build some of these applications on their own."
IBM said it plans to make this version of the Mashup Center available through its Lotus Greenhouse Web site. Users must register on the Greenhouse site to gain access. The Mashup Center is not currently available on the site. At press time, the company's spokespeople would say only that it would be available "soon."
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached