Wondrous widgets and mighty mashups

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Now that I've been out of computer trade journalism for several years, I can make the following, shocking confession: As a college freshman, I dropped my one and only computer programming class just before I failed it.

This was back in the day when only computer science honor students were allowed to use the few terminals with monochrome CRTs (aka "monitors") that were kept behind locked doors in little offices. The rest of us worked at keyboards with attached printers that noisily typed our primitive attempts at code on endless rolls of perforated paper.

Fast-forward three decades. Programming, that rarified skill I lacked in college, is being promulgated and democratized at a breathtaking rate thanks to visual interfaces and open Web standards.

The phenomenon is everywhere and goes far beyond teenagers tricking out their MySpace pages with links to music, YouTube videos, Flickr images and so on. One social networking site that has embraced a sophisticated version of this principle is Facebook, which opened up its platform to independent developers at the end of May. There are now thousands of free Facebook applications available to the site's 34 million-plus active members worldwide.

The big Web portals have spurred this approach and continue to expand it. Google, for instance, provides a large array of gadgets to spruce up one's personal Google desktop.

But the granddaddy of widget providers is Yahoo, which offers some 4,000 of them at

What's significant about all these pieces of Web code is who builds them. As Yahoo notes on its Widgets Gallery info page, "Our authors range from professional software designers and developers, to hobbyists, to major media outlets, to Madison Avenue ad agencies."

Ratcheting up the concept of Web widgets and gadgets are so-called "mashups." These are true applications built by linking two or more existing Web applications or data sources via public APIs or Web protocols such as XML or Javascript to create a third, hybrid application. Think of a Google map populated by local crime statistics and home sale prices. (Mashup creation tools, all released this year, include Yahoo's Pipes, Microsoft's Popfly and IBM's QEDWiki, which is aimed at business users.)

What does this all mean?

What it means for business is this: Web-based application development is possible without wading through a ponderous IT process. And things will be built quickly. Very quickly. Finally, know this: Your competitors will get the drop on you if you don't join the party.

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB and BtoB's Media Business. He can be reached at

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