The do-it-yourself Web emerges

New services from fledging start-ups enable people to build Web applications themselves, which pundits say will unleash creativity.

Marcelo Calbucci, a one-time Microsoft engineer, suffered the fate of many tech-savvy people: Family members counted on him for their computing needs, including building Web sites.

"Everyone asked me to build their Web sites--my cousin, aunt, mother, sister. I built sites for the entire family," said Calbucci, who used Microsoft developer tools, like ASP.Net.

After going through the process a few times, he hit upon a business idea: Calbucci started building software that will let people create Web sites themselves without digging through the dirty details of HTML.

"I always felt that what I wanted to do for (family members) was not that different from what everyone else needed, and that there has to be a better solution," he said.

Enter the do-it-yourself Web. A growing number of start-ups, like Calbucci's Sampa, are trying to bring Web application creation to the masses, letting mere mortals share spreadsheets online or "mash up" information from different Web sites.

The idea is to empower non-programmers to make sites that are more than a simple collection of static Web pages. In the process, individuals will gain better tools to collaborate and communicate online, particularly when these services are brought to the office, say experts.

"Bringing do-it-yourself (Web sites) to the office may be the beginning of a new movement to free up creativity at the individual office worker level," said John Seely Brown, a consultant and former chief scientist at Xerox. "I think we have the perfect storm for some major changes."

Seely Brown said rapid commoditization of hardware and software, combined with greater bandwidth, makes complex hosted services more viable. Also, modern browsers enable more interactive Web applications and consumers are becoming accustomed to mixing information from multiple sources to create their own applications.

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End-user application development is a long-held--and largely unsuccessful--idea. But entrepreneurs and experts contend that emerging tools are paving the way for untrained people to create relatively sophisticated Web sites, typically an outgrowth of blogs, wikis and bookmark-sharing sites like Delicious.

"It's really easy to do collaborative content sharing through blogs and wikis, but I have other tools on my desktop like a spreadsheet and a database," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group. "It'd be really nice to take those familiar tools and bring them to the Web--and that's exactly what's happening."

Mash-up roach motel? Approaches to the do-it-yourself idea vary widely. Start-ups, including SocialText and JotSpot are seeking to make it easier to create jointly authored Web pages, or wikis. Companies like Ning and Coghead promise more general hosted application development services.

Meanwhile, several companies offer hosted versions of desktop applications, such as and Zoho Creator, which promote collaboration among small groups. And there a huge number of publishing tools, such as , and consumer-oriented services to create blogs or personalized home pages.

In contrast to first-generation Web publishing tools like FrontPage and Dreamweaver, many new services let people create an application from a Web browser and then the finished site is hosted by the same provider. Instead of simply publishing a Web page, the focus is on sharing and collaboration. For example, Sampa has prebuilt integration with Web services like YouTube, Flickr and Amazon.com to help people build their own mash-ups.

But with that freedom come potential hazards.

Many new hosted service companies have not yet thoroughly tested their business models, which is a risk to customers and their data. In general, so-called Web 2.0 companies tend to rely on ad revenue or subscriptions to finance their operations.

"It's really important, especially people doing this in a business context, to make sure they scrutinize the business models and the business foundations of the suppliers they are working with," O'Kelly said. Failed Web companies could lead to a "mash-up roach motel" where data is lost, he said.

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