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At Mashup Camp, geeks plot future of Web

For all their promise of creating cutting-edge applications, mashup creators are pushing the business and legal boundaries of the Web. Photos: Meeting up at Mashup Camp

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Alan Taylor is living in the Wild West of Web development, and he has the scars to prove it.

In his spare time, Taylor builds mashups--Web applications that combine content from more than one source and have caught on as Web providers from Amazon.com to Microsoft make their data programmatically available to outsiders.

But while he is breaking new ground on the Internet, he is also pushing legal and business boundaries. His Amazon Light application--a stripped-down site for buying and renting goods through Amazon--attracted two cease-and-desist orders a couple of years back, one from Amazon and another from Google.

"I do lots of different development, but the mashups are the most fun just because there's so much potential," said Taylor, one of about 200 developers and techies attending Mashup Camp here this week. "The biggest barriers have been artificial barriers, legal barriers."

Taylor, who holds a day job as a senior Web developer at Boston.com, survived the legal threats without much trouble, but his experience points to the relative immaturity of mashups, which advocates believe represent the Web's cutting edge.

Many popular mashup applications involve plotting information, such as a calendar entry, on a mapping Web site. But Taylor and others at the third Mashup Camp are looking to push far beyond maps. Hype Machine, for example, tracks discussions of music on blogs, aggregates that information and allows people to listen to mentioned songs.

Because Mashup Camp is considered an "unconference," discussion topics were proposed by attendees and scheduled on the first day of the two-day event. Perhaps as a reflection of their enthusiasm, participants were able to decide on the conference content within 20 minutes.

The semi-structured format is particularly well-suited to mashups, which many attendees likened to a grassroots cultural movement.

Large software vendors catering to corporate software developers or independent software vendors have spent years establishing a suite of Web services standards and infrastructure software while advocating a modular design, called a service-oriented architecture, or SOA.

Mashups, by contrast, tend to focus on speed and simplicity, wiring together different Web sites using quick and lightweight methods.

"This is taking the SOA idea and applying it to the mess that is the real world," said Chris Radcliff, a Web developer at Eventful, which aggregates and publishes event listings. "You can grab pieces from here and there. It makes it a lot more informal, which increases adoption."

Established technology providers, which sell to businesses, are courting mashup developers, some of whom may be working at start-ups or just working on their own. Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Yahoo, Autodesk and AOL are among the sponsors of this year's event.

IBM, for example, has a tool called QEDwiki, which is designed to let businesspeople pull together data from different sources, such as weather information and product shipping information, to create a perhaps temporary application.

Joe Keller, the former Java Web services marketing vice president at Sun Microsystems, attended the event to foster a network, or "ecosystem," of leading-edge developers.

"My ecosystem has changed," said Keller, chief marketing officer at mashup tool company Kapow Technologies. "You see SOAs and Web services struggling to get critical mass, and this lightweight programming model is already hitting critical mass."


Correction: This story misidentified a Web developer at Eventful. His name is Chris Radcliff. It also gave an outdated title for Joe Keller, chief marketing officer at Kapow Technologies.
Larger vendors generally woo both individual developers and large Web service providers such as Amazon, Google and eBay. These sites provide application programming interfaces, or APIs, and allow outsiders to query their sites.

Meanwhile, smaller software companies are trying to build a business from the budding mashup industry, even proposing revenue-sharing arrangements from Web advertising.

Dapper, for example, is a company that formed two months ago with the premise that the mashup model has built-in problems. It has designed a service that allows developers to programmatically pull data from a Web site, such as a photo-sharing service, even if the site doesn't publish its own APIs.

"There's a big market failure in this whole game and it's the content providers."
--Eran Shir, co-founder of Dapper

At the beginning of February, the company will release a service that allows content providers to set rules for how outsiders can access their information. For example, a blog could allow others to republish information under a Creative Commons license, or a news site could charge a licensing fee.

"There's a big market failure in this whole game and it's the content providers. You have all these guys who build mashups and other applications and they always live in fear of cease-and-desist letters," said Eran Shir, co-founder of Dapper. "The idea is that we want to make this ecosystem sustainable, not just go to fun conferences in cool places."

Fear of getting cut off
During one Mashup Camp session, titled "Licensing, Commercialization and Mashups," attendees discussed licensing issues that can come up when relying on the data provided by Web services providers.

The concern, many said, is that a company like Google or Yahoo could shut off access to its data if a mashup application provider becomes competitive or consumes too many resources, such as bandwidth. Generally, an individual can write an application that uses a Web site's API without prior permission.

"If we're doing all these mashups and they become wildly popular, the unfortunate trade-off is that we get shut down and it's when we're wildly popular--that's the sucky part," Eventful developer Nate Ritter said during the licensing and commercialization session.

Attendees to the session recommended closely reading the terms of use for Web services providers. Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk who led the discussion, noted that the providers themselves have started to recognize the problem but haven't figured out how to fully address it.

Integrating with third-party sites allows developers to focus on their own Web site's offering without having to build their own mapping or search function, for example. However, that also means relying on outsiders to deliver a product.

Eventful built a widget (a small application that runs independently) that allows people to tell musical acts where fans want them to tour. The widget, built using Adobe Flash, can be embedded within other applications, but MySpace.com throttled certain Flash functions, which "beheaded" Eventful's widget, said Radcliff.

That left 20,000 people with a misfiring widget, and Eventful programmers had to resolve the problem.

Radcliff said that more stability in the platform and consistent APIs would get around those sorts of difficulties. But flexibility reflects the very nature of mashups, he said.

"You can't treat anything like it's a fixed target," he said. "Luckily, these things can be fixed quickly."