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.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
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.


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 DabbleDB and Zoho Creator, which promote collaboration among small groups. And there a huge number of publishing tools, such as SiteKreator, 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.

A less apparent danger is that end users, particularly in businesses, could use information from an unreliable source, which will ultimately lead to bad decisions, said O'Kelly.

Long tail for apps
Although previous attempts at simplifying Web site development have fallen short, proponents say technology advances are reviving the idea in a different form--and there's no shortage of demand.

Witness Ning, a start-up started by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen.

The hosted service lets people make their own applications by copying a wide range of existing templates, from sharing restaurant tips online to a site that lets people submit music covered by Creative Commons. Since launching last year, the site has thousands of user-created applications.

While Ning is appealing to consumers, Coghead intends to bring do-it-yourself application development to corporations.

"We really want to enable the people closest to the business situation to create the application. Up until now, they've had to rely on programmers and a difficult translation process," said Coghead CEO Paul McNamara. "We see tremendous frustration."

Now in early testing and slated for release by the end of the year, the hosted service is designed so that a "moderately technical" person--for example, someone who writes macros in Excel--can construct applications that involve electronic forms and a work flow, such as automatically escalating a customer service request.

If successful, the service could lead to an outpouring of new applications, said Coghead founder and chief technology officer Greg Olsen. Often business people bypass the IT department and use products such as Intuit's QuickBase to solve their problems.

"It's sort of the 'long tail' argument for applications," Olsen said. "Millions and millions of people need applications, but the threshold to do them has been too high."

Developers invited Although many Web 2.0 services are meant to be more accessible than traditional Web building tools, both professional developers and hobbyists are very much part of the picture.

For example, Ning's Web site is designed so developers familiar with scripting languages can tap into and customize Ning's services through APIs (application programming interfaces).

Providing APIs to encourage developers to create customized Web services that drive site traffic is becoming commonplace. That's also a central strategy to Web giants Google and Microsoft.

Even within corporations, more powerful tools for end users do not spell the end of professional developers, said Burton Group's O'Kelly. Tasks such as application design, ensuring data integrity and providing guidance to end users are vital. "These are power tools. And if used without discretion, power tools can hurt people," he said.

The service providers themselves, such as Coghead, will be using sophisticated development techniques, noted Seely Brown. Using a service-oriented architecture, the hosting site can launch new customized services quickly to the end user, he said.

"Service-oriented architectures are the first step toward creating agility. These (front-end services) may be the second step," said Seely Brown.

Joe Kraus, CEO and co-founder of JotSpot, said that what is happening with the do-it-yourself Web sites is analogous to many other technology waves, from PCs to podcasting.

"The biggest revolutions in technology are do-it-yourself revolutions," said Kraus. "When you give people the power that had been limited to specialized (tools), powerful things happen."