Bring on the packaged mashup platform

My dream is a world where I can pick-and-mix services from different providers, selecting the combination of services that best fits my needs. But today it's just a dream.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Fellow ZDNet blogger David Berlind recently began a quest in search of the 'smashup' — a mashup of all the componentry, sourced as online services, that small businesses need to run their web-facing business operations. I wish him well, because I too have been on the same quest, and the bad news is, it's not as easy as you'd think it ought to be.

Ever since I created my own Web 1.0 mashup back in 1998-99,Trouble is, that combination of features isn't economic I've been waiting and yearning for the emergence of anything approximating what David describes, but it hasn't happened yet. Indeed, for several of the intervening years, the state of the art regressed instead of moving forwards. Dozens of sites and services either closed down or stopped signing up new customers or simply froze further development.

My Web 1.0 mashup was a site called ASPnews.com, which I launched in the fall of 1998. Very few people ever realized back in those days that the site, although it looked like any other website of the era, was actually a collection of about half-a-dozen separate hosted services. If you'd done a bit of detective work with IP addresses, you'd have been able to identify the different service providers; ZyWeb for content, Atomz for search, NetBanx for the order form and payment processing, DoubleClick DART for the banner ads, and other providers for the industry directory, discussion forum and filtered newsfeed.

All of this is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff now, but it was ahead of its time back then, and it was all canned after internet.com (now JupiterMedia) acquired the site back in January 2000 and brought everything in-house to its own servers. But by then I wanted more. I wanted to get beyond all the constraints of the Web 1.0 environment: fixed feature sets with next-to-no customization options, no integration (except at the HTTP/HTML level), take-it-or-leave-it service guarantees — and often no warranty of service at all. The only things I wanted to keep from the Web 1.0 era were the instant sign-up, the extreme ease of use and — best of all — the mass market price points. I do insist on paying — I can't have my business dependent on a free service that gives me no recourse when something goes wrong — but hey, I'm a small business, I don't have hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to shell out on all this stuff.

Trouble is, that combination of features isn't economic for most providers. My dream is a world where I can pick-and-mix services from different providers, selecting the combination of services that best fits my needs. But providers don't want me going elsewhere for services they offer themselves, however much better those other services may match my needs. They want me to buy all my services from them as a single source.

My dream is being able to create the integrations I need by just selecting options on a screen without having to code (at most, a few lines of scripting). But so long as there are enough other prospects out there who are more willing to tinker about with the code than I, providers don't want to invest the development dollars to add the ease of use I demand.

My ideal is to select the precise functions I want from each provider's package, define my desired service levels, pay monthly only for what I use, get a credit for any service outages — and manage it all from a self-service screen where I can view my current usage levels and account balance any time I like. But few providers have the economies of scale to fund such a complex customer service management capability when each customer may be spending as little as $30 a month.

Oh, did I mention, I want to be able to delegate some of my staff to do some of this for themselves, but I want to retain control over what parts of the system they can access.

And remember, I want all of this to be really easy and self-evident. When I set up ASPnews.com back in October 1998, I had no money to fund development and no technical expertise. But I wanted to get the site live right away. So I created it using ZyWeb, a $30-a-month website creation and hosting service that saved me having to learn more than a few basic tags of HTML. It was live in less than two weeks.

Today of course someone can start publishing a blog in an hour or two, but building a mashup site still isn't something a novice can pick up in a matter of days, even less so if it's a site that aims to mash up services to run a business. I'm interested to see how David Berlind's smashup experiment progresses, but I think it's soon going to get bogged down in these practical obstacles that derive from a mismatch between what small business customers actually want and what providers are able and willing to offer them. The ideal is a platform that presents a wide range of pre-packaged mashups, with virtually unlimited scope to add or subtract individual services, sourced from anywhere over the Web. It's an appealing idea — I'd leap on it instantly — but is it economic for any provider to offer? Not yet.

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