Mashup ecosystem poised to explode

Mashup ecosystem poised to explode

Summary: As one of the co-organizers of Mashup Camp, I'm getting a lot of inquiries via email and from the press about what mashups are and why they're getting so much buzz.  Invariably, my response begins by evoking their memory of another technology ecosystem that exploded through the stratosphere just after exiting from its embryonic phase -- one that the mashup ecosystem (or what I call the "uncomputer") is virtually identical to: The PC.


As one of the co-organizers of Mashup Camp, I'm getting a lot of inquiries via email and from the press about what mashups are and why they're getting so much buzz.  Invariably, my response begins by evoking their memory of another technology ecosystem that exploded through the stratosphere just after exiting from its embryonic phase -- one that the mashup ecosystem (or what I call the "uncomputer") is virtually identical to: The PC. 

In explaining the uncomputer, I recently wrote:

When I think about what today's operating systems are — Windows, OS X, Linux, etc –  I mostly seem them as collections of application programming interfaces (APIs) that give developers easy access to resources (displays, networks, file systems, user interfaces, etc.)....The computer that we've come to know and love is quickly becoming a thing of the past (thus, the "uncomputer") and quickly taking its place (and drawing developers in droves) is a new collection of APIs (this time Internet-based ones) and database interfaces being offered by outfits like Google, Yahoo,  Microsoft,, eBay, Technorati, and Amazon (as well as smaller private enterprises, governments, and other businesses)....Barely a day goes by where some new mashup — the creative merger of one or more of these APIs with each other and/or with a public or private database — doesn't appear on the Web.

When I verbally explain these principles, some people get it right away (and the proverbial aha! moment follows).  Others struggle.  I know why.  When I'm describing it, I'm picturing the one-to-one overlaying of the two ecosystems in my head.  Even after reading the aforementioned passage, few people are working off the same imagery I am.  So, I've decided to fix that problem by doing the images.  Although it's not perfect and some of you techies out there might prefer to organize it differently or use other labels, here is my simplified image of how applications (eg: productivity applications) rely on the APIs of an operating system (eg: Windows) to get things done while interacting with the operating systems graphical user interface:


The diagram clearly oversimplifies how software works, but it is more than adequate when it comes to comparing the PC ecosystem to the mashup ecosystem.  Here, you have applications in the top layer that interact with operating system's (OS) graphical user interface (GUI) and whose developers relied on the OS's APIs to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them. (The back and forth arrows that demonstrate this reliance may not be exact.  They're just there to give the sense of data and instructions being passed back and forth between the two layers.)  Back in the old days, for example, to put a packet on the network, developers had to write thousands of lines of code.  Today, it's basically one line of code that calls the networking APIs that in turn, do all the hard work so developers don't have to.  In labeling this layered model,  I've provided samples of applications, APIs, and operating systems.  But these aren't absolutes.   Now, let's look at the basic framework of mashups:


With three primary layers (OS, API, and app/mashup) and a user interface, the underlying framework to the two ecosystems is nearly identical.   While there are a bunch of APIs that you'll never find in an OS (with more coming every day) and vice versa, some of the APIs (ie: storage, security, messaging, database access) are the same.  Even some of the applications are the same! The only others differences are that the word "mashup" appears in place of the word "apps", "browser" appears in place of the phrase "OS GUI" and the various OSes that play host to the APIs are replaced by the Internet.  I probably could have used the word "Host" (as in API host) instead of "OS."

Another great aspect of the mashup ecosystem is that instead of the OS vendors being in charge of providing the APIs, that's left to the operators of Web sites.  In true bazaar-like fashion (as in The Cathedral and the Bazaar), what this means is that anybody can add any API at anytime which in turn makes the mashup ecosystem incredibly ripe for innovation.  After all, when has a developer not said, "I wish there was an API for XYZ to do some heavy lifting for me?"  That desire to scratch an itch is where innovation begins and now, there's no paperwork to fill out, phone calls to make, or slotting of priorities to do in order to get itches scratched.  Wanna add an API to the Internet? Go right head.  Start innovating.

Finally, why might this ecosystem snowball the way none before it has (not to say that the ones before it haven't been unbelievably successful)?  Because, with mashups, fewer technical skills are needed to become a developer than ever.  Not only that, the simplest ones can be done in 10 or 15 minutes.  Before, you had to be a pretty decent code jockey with languages like C++ or Visual Basic to turn your creativity into innovation.  With mashups, much the same way blogging systems put Web publishing into the hands of millions of ordinary non-technical people, the barrier to developing applications and turning creativity into innovation is so low that there's a vacuum into which an entire new class of developers will be sucked.  It's already happening. 

Check out John Musser's new MashupFeed web site.  On it, he charts the number of new mashups that are turning up every day.  On the basis that there's 144 APIs and more than 350 mashups that use them, the average number of new mashups per day that he was reporting when I last checked was 2.63.   And those are only the ones he knows about.  Provided its accurate, at that rate, that's over 800 new applications per year.  How will the rate change when there's 1000 APIs by the end of 2007 (my prediction)?   It's anyone's guess.  But one thing is for sure.  It's not going down.

Topic: Operating Systems

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  • Too many tentacles will kill the beast


    While this ecosystem idea sounds great in theory, I don't see how it will sustain itself. One of its biggest downfalls will be version control.

    Once the disparate APIs start introducing new features or change existing ones that co-existed with others just fine, then the user will face a never-ending mess of having to keep all of the APIs in their mashed-up applications in synchronization.

    Check out the latest copy of CIO magazine where a great article describes how one company faced this version control hell with one of their on-demand (mashed-up) solutions.

    I really do not see a large future for these mash-ups because buiness people are not going to spend the time dealing with the reasons why their apps no longer work together. After the first few times this happens, they will run screaming for a single vendor to help them.

    And any vendor that relies on this ecosystem to build their business will find the same issues. I truly believe that smart companies will use APIs behind the scenes in their complete product offerings. It may not be the the complete "plug-and-play" idea (which is in reality "configure and pray"), but it will solve their business needs.

    Also, my marketing background and education has taught me that too many choices cloud the person's perspective, usually to the point of indecision. This mash-up idea is way too many options for a business person to face.
    Paul C.
    • re: too many tentacles

      This hits it right on the head. I'm a single user, not a CIO, and I have trouble keeping track of the versions and updates of the 15 or so applications that I keep on the four computers that I and my wife use at home. Trying to accomplish keeping track of mashup versions and updates on the computers in even a small business would be a daunting task. Also what's to prevent the hacker guys from inserting bad stuff into the apps?

      • RE: Mashup ecosystem poised to explode

        @K4thwright is true
  • Exploding can be bad too

    ... as in explosive destruction. "Mashup" to me says "kludge." While kludges can be very helpful in a pinch, they are no substitute for a well-thought-through solution. And the same applies to mashups.
  • Mashed for now, but eventually twice-baked

    Reader comparisons to tentacles and explosions aren't far off the mark, but the explosions will call the tentacles of high-tech ambulance chasers out to sue for damages caused by Joe Geek's not having to understand anything about technology or APIs. Of course, the driving fire under Joe G. was fueled by executives bent on time-to-market that failed to understand Joe's impact on SOX, HIPPA, name-your-compliance acronym. We're riding the technology/development success/failure wave that never stops. The last thing I want to wipe from PC or my projects is more mash. Eventually, lawsuits and insane operational and support cost of mashed cleanup will quench some of the mashup drive and trigger evolution of the next ecosystem of centralized, managed, control...the mainframe. It's so retro, it'll come, but it'll be bigger.
  • M*A*S*H'd UP over Dial-up Hell ?

    M-any A-PI's S-lowing H-ellishly over Dial-up won't work in "Fly-over Country" Dave!

    The "Plumbing" of the Internet needs rebuilding, or a new technology needs to be developed for the "rest of us" living and working in Dial-Up Hell.

    That being said, I think that you are the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or "Woz" out there within this MASHUP paradyme shift.

    Keep "geeking it" Dave!
  • Ancient Mashups

    Good points, both pro and con. It may well be that we need a
    new "enabling technology" to provide some stability, before the
    explosion can happen. Reminds me of the the decades-old
    Internet that needed HTTP to enable the great Web mashup
    ecosystem. Of course that didn't solve the whole stability
    problem; we still get broken links occasionally, but they are
    usually more of a nuisance than a show-stopper.

    Being somewhat older than many of your readers, I can also
    recall an even earlier mashup, maybe 500 or so million years
    ago (I forget) called the "Cambrian Explosion". 'Course that one
    needed viruses to ferry "genetic APIs" between organisms - a
    slow process and quite error prone. The point is, it evenually
    worked out OK, because mashups that used unstable APIs
    simply went extinct.

    To move things along a little faster, some sort of "API
    Description Language" may be useful, to make directories (like
    Mashup Feed) searchable.
    Robert Kohlenberger
  • Mashup melee

    Those who are having a negative reaction to Mashups are making fundamental error. The idea is not to just dump a bunch of experimental projects together, (possibly fraught with inexperienced mistakes). Rather it would be appropriate to encourage contributers to perform due dilligence on any code contribution, along with necessary documentation and instruction. It always amazes me the kind of negative reactions that can be garnered by unconventional offerings. We should observe, early offerings before condemning the concept.
  • Interesting draft mashup

    HomePriceMaps appears to be a good concept.

    What plans do you have to improve the usability of the site?