Zude's drag-n-drop Web authoring/remixing make it the Switzerland of the social Web

Although it is unquestionably one of the most revolutionary services to hit the Web in a long time -- one that, once out of beta, should prove to be equally usable and useful to Grandma as it is powerful to hackers, corporate developers, knowledge workers, and business analysts -- once you're done playing around with Fifth Generation System's Zude.com, you'll probably have as tough a time as I am putting your finger on how to categorize it.

Although it is unquestionably one of the most revolutionary services to hit the Web in a long time -- one that, once out of beta, should prove to be equally usable and useful to Grandma as it is powerful to hackers, corporate developers, knowledge workers, and business analysts -- once you're done playing around with Fifth Generation System's Zude.com, you'll probably have as tough a time as I am putting your finger on how to categorize it. But however you categorize it, one thing is for sure. You have to try it (continued below....)

  To get a better idea of how Fifth Generation Systems' Zude works, David interviewed the company's President and CEO Jim McNiel as well as the company's CTO Steve Repetti. To see the interviews along with a description of Zude's architecture and a demonstration of how Zude works, just check out the video. We've also extracted the audio from the video so you can tune into the interview podcast style. If you're already subscribed to David's podcasts, the audio will show up automatically on your computer or in your portable audio player. Or, if you want to manually download or stream the audio, you can do so with the flash player above. 

(continued from above) For Internet users looking to personalize their Web experience (and how others experience them on the Web), it's what services like MyYahoo!, MySpace, Google's personalized home page, every blogging platform, and every other platform of personal expression (PPE) on the Web should be, but aren't. It's also what large, complex business-oriented corporate (and collaborative) portal authoring and publishing tools should be, but aren't. It's the flexible, recombinant Web publishing platform that just about every major media company from AOL to CNN to the New York Times to ZDNet's own parent company CNET Networks that's looking for a way to easily assemble mutliple media forms (text, still images, audio, video and interactive elements like comments and polls) into a combined user experience needs but doesn't have: Not just for themselves, but also so their audience members can easily take whatever the default design for a media portal is and change it to their liking while integrating their own personal elements.

Here's an example. The New York Times could offer its entire Web site on top of the Zude platform. The default layout could look and feel exactly as the Times' Web site looks and feels today with two exceptions: not only could the NYT's audience members redesign it to their own personal liking, they could integrate content, objects,and functionality from other Web sites as well. Picture for example your personal New York Times business section with a Yahoo! Finance-driven stock market widget from yourminis.com embedded right in it. Or the sports page with YouTube videos and Flickr streams of your favorite sports teams and personalities.

In fact, with Zude, ordinary Web users can build something like this today in their personal Zudescape: a completely personalized portal that can integrate or "capture" live objects and content as simple stand-alone images found in Google's image search (or on your desktop) right up to entire Web pages like your myspace.com or Facebook site. But for the media company (new or old, from print to broadcast to online) that's deperately looking for a way to command a captive audience for the benefit of its advertising business, playing host to a platform that makes the Web as personalizable as Zude does (in other words, playing host to the Zudescapes of its audience) could be the key to audience growth and loyalty (not to mention Zude's AdSense-like ability to track who is using what content, to report on that, and to contextually offer advertising on that basis as well).

Given the way Zude also seemlessly crosses the boundaries between end-user's desktops and the Web (elements can simply be dragged from one to the other), Zude also qualifies as the secret sauce that Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer has alluded to multiple times when talking about how his company can and will revolutionize the marriage of Web services, local applications, and advertising in the context of its Web divisions, but that the Redmond-based software giant has so far been unable to deliver (continued below.....)


So what isn't Zude? It's hard to say. But starting May 1, instead of trying to be what it actually can be (all things to all people), the company (Fifth Generation Systems) is wisely electing to first tap a focused market (users of Web-based PPEs like MySpace, Facebook, photosharing sites, and blogging platforms) that isn't just the easiest, largest, and fastest growing segment of the Web, but that also best exemplifies how Zude can bridge the gap between sophisticated Web developers and ordinary users like Grandma. In fact, when you consider how the Holy Grail for providers of software platforms is to figure out a way to turn the Grandmas of the world into software developers and Web publishers, of all the platforms on the Web, Zude, with its patent-pending cross-domain drag-and-drop capability, so far comes the closest (with other recombinant, user-friendly widget-oriented platforms like yourminis.com coming in a distant second place, and NetVibes.com and even more distant third).

Even if that's the first audience that Fifth Generation Systems is going after, Zude has something that's equally compelling, if not moreso, to businesses and corporations in search of a portal platform that isn't nearly as rigid as some of today's portal offerings are. Picture how, even if access rights define what sort of corporate portlets and data each employee has access to, Zude could offer an ability for each of those employees to not only customize the look and feel of their own portals, but to even define some contextual interactivity between the various objects that live within those portals. For example, for a stock broker, if a Zude-based portal includes one window on his or her brokerage firm's proprietary intelligence regarding a particular stock, other windows in the portal could dynamically draw from external Web searches (eg: a search of Google News) to build a more complete picture.  

Recently, in a treatise that talks about how he who builds the most flexible PPE wins -- a platform that makes it easy to mix and match elements (both static and live) of the Web with each other --  I talked about how, in his original design of Userland's Radio, Dave Winer really grokked how a platform of personal expression (again, a PPE) should work. The PPE needs to be flexible enough so as to allow the incorporation of functionality and content found elsewhere on the Web without forcing the user to work with complex code or XML.

Out of the box, Userland's Radio demonstrated how, despite having much more tucked behind it, a command as simple as <%google.macros.box ("text to search here")%> could result in a full-blown Google search results box on a blog  (or other Radio-based Web site). What was missing however from PPEs like Userland (after Dave left), TypePad, FaceBook, Blogger (Google) was an effort to keep pace with the APIs and functionality out on Web in such a way that those PPEs had a palette of functionalities (like Google's search box) that were easily invoked with one line of text or even better, a drag and drop of the mouse.

Even worse, you have PPEs like MySpace.com that are going in the complete opposite direction by disabling third party functionality the way MySpace just did with Photobucket.  Whereas MySpace stifles third party functionality, Zude encourages it. In my video interview with the company's CEO Jim McNiel (which includes a demonstration of Zude) , McNiel says that while Zude offers its own native photosharing and videosharing capabilities, the real idea behind Zude is not to force people to ditch their old provider (eg: Flickr, WebShots, Ophoto, etc.) in favor of a new one but rather to let them have their cake and eat it too.

Eventually though, Zude users could find themselves switching. After all, let's say you pull your entire MySpace page into your Zudescape (all linkage and functionality on such pages continues to work, even after this is done) and then use Zude to integrate functionality from other destinations like Photobucket that MySpace has turned off.  And then let's say you tell people to start visiting your Zudescape instead of your MySpace page. Pretty soon, given the freedom and flexibility of Zude, you'll find yourself pouring less and less original content into the MySpace "component" and more and more into your native Zudescape. Users of Zude get an unlimited number of pages that can be linked to each other. Objects can be freely moved anywhere on a Zude page and their behavior can be completely redefined on the fly (try doing that in MySpace!). It's completely free if you use the advertising supported version. Or, you can pay $25 per year so your Zudescape can go ad-free.

Is Zude ready for primetime? After watching the video and seeing what I saw, you may very well get as excited as I did. That said, it's just now going into its first public beta. It's been about a month since I first saw Zude and I've had a chance to try it myself and it's quite obviously a beta product. For example, during my test period, Zude only supported Internet Explorer. McNiel says that by the time Zude "ships," other browsers including Mozilla's Firefox will be supported as well. Also, there have been times where the service has been slow to respond and the programmability of objects hasn't worked as advertised (for example, you can change the transparency of anything you drop into your Zudescape). McNiel expects all of that to be corrected by the time Zude emerges from beta later this year. Given how far the company has come, I see no reason to doubt them.

About the only remaining question is how long the company can remain independent. With so many major media and Internet companies (AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft, etc.) looking for that killer platform that could put them in the game the way they haven't been before (or at least in a long time), Zude could be it.  

Here's the video: