The New York Times has a piece today by John Markoff on Microsoft’s mashup builder Popfly entitled Mashups Are Breaking the Mold at Microsoft. Like many mashup tools, Popfly is relatively new, it went into alpha testing earlier last year and was opened to a wider audience last fall (for more you can see our Popfly launch coverage here). The Times story looks at how the project and team are not typical Microsoft: Popfly lead John Montgomery and his team of 17 is very small by Microsoft standards, they are building software inherently designed to be delivered over the Web, and it’s an innovative tool for building applications but the audience is non-programmers.
Introduced at the Web 2.0 conference last year by Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, Popfly was picked by PC World magazine as one of the most innovative computing and consumer electronics products of 2007. It has garnered more than 100,000 users — the company says the exact number is confidential — and now has a library of more than 50,000 “mashups”: new components or Web pages that have been created in a visual snap-together fashion, like Lego blocks.
Reference is made to some of the challengers: “Microsoft is certainly not alone in seeing this kind of an opportunity. Yahoo offers a widely used tool call Yahoo Pipes that offers some of the same capabilities as Popfly, and Google has designed a “mashup editor” for more skilled programmers.” And there are other challenges, the largest of which may be Web community skepticism because it relies on Microsoft’s own Silverlight technology as an RIA delivery medium (and indeed Silverlight, outside of Popfly itself, is being used for for some mashups today).
But in the end there’s an interesting question, and opportunity, that many mashup products are pursuing, of how to put more sophisticated tools in the hands of non-IT staff, be they in a corporate environment, at school or at home.
For his part, Mr. Montgomery believes that Popfly does have some very big ideas to offer the Web world. He is following in an important tradition that began in the 1960s with computer languages like Logo and Smalltalk, which were aimed at unlocking the power of computing for nontechnical users. Today he is betting that Popfly will offer a simple way to give the power of programming to the rest of us.