The advent of the Web 10 years ago opened up vast banks of information to anyone with an Internet connection. Now, clever programming tricks that use data from public Web sites are letting developers mix up that information to suit consumers' particular needs.
Cheap Gas, a Google Maps-powered interface, is part of the phenomenon. Dozens of such nifty "mash up" programs, built by independent developers using tools provided by online businesses, provide services beyond those of the base sites.
"Mash-ups" that let people combine information from different Web sites are reshaping the Web experience, allowing independent developers to better control and customize the information consumers can get.
Experts predict Web site owners will increasingly resemble software companies: To generate traffic and sales, they will encourage add-on products and Web services.
They also portend big changes for site owners--at least, for those who want to take part in the next stage of the Web, called Web 2.0 by some. Instead of treating the Web just as a handy way to publish information, businesses need to start acting like software companies and encourage programmers to build services on top of their platforms, analysts say.
"The conclusion that many savvy Web presences had is very similar to what software companies have realized with open source: As creative as your organization may be, the community at large will always be more creative," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said.
By mimicking software companies and encouraging coders to build upon their data, Web site operators can give consumers more-tailored services--and themselves richer products.
Established Web companies have been onto the idea of wooing developers for some time. Amazon.com, for example, published its Web services APIs, or application programming interfaces, three years ago. Its annual report (see PDF) touts its "seller platform" for letting third-parties sell through its Web site, and it has regular software product releases.
At the same time, Google and Yahoo have been hiring luminaries in the software industry, such as well-known engineer Adam Bosworth, to help define how software services will be delivered over the Web.
Wild, wild Web ideas
Allowing individuals to play with their Web site data has resulted in programs that the companies might never have thought of. For example, Adrian Holovaty, a 24-year-old programmer, built a Web site called Chicagocrime.org that taps into Google Maps to display where crimes occur in Chicago.
Holovaty, whose day job was lead developer at the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper, said he wanted to provide a service to citizens of Chicago, and tackle a fun technical challenge. He spent about 40 hours on the job, spread out over a month of nights and weekends.
Another slick application, which taps into Amazon's book search service, is BookBurro which lets people compare book prices. This sort of Web service can be constructed pretty quickly: Instead of having to build a book search and e-commerce engine from scratch, one person can create something entirely new by combining Amazon's tool with other data sources.
Inviting third-party developers to build on top of a company Web site--much the way Microsoft woos outside programmers to its Windows operating system--creates a healthier business, advocates have argued.
eBay, for example, already gets more than 20 percent of its listings via programs created by outsiders to automate the auction giant's process. People can still use the regular eBay Web site to list items for sale, but the automated system enables sellers to move much higher volumes, said Greg Isaacs, the director of eBay's developer program. Isaacs noted that the program has mushroomed from 300 participants in 2003 to about 18,000 now.
"In the last two or three years, we've really seen working with developers as a competitive advantage," Isaacs said. "When I have to explain to management the importance of developers, it's very easy to do."
Mash-ups like these are emerging because a growing number of Web properties are releasing instructions, or APIs, on how to access their data. With these publicly available APIs--often published in standardized XML protocols--programmers get