POP music has its mash-ups that combine tunes and vocals from different songs. YouTube viewers do it, too, mixing together segments from various music videos.
Now mash-ups are poised to hit the mainstream, and to spread well beyond music. Yahoo, I.B.M., Microsoft and others are creating systems to let ordinary people who’ve never been near a Java class create useful computer applications by combining, or “mashing up,” different online information sources.
If the technology catches on, many of us may become part-time programmers, instead of waiting for the people in information technology to help.
Here’s just one example: An employee at a chain of hardware stores creates a mash-up that combines inventory data, storm forecasts and the telephone numbers of branch managers. Then, when snow is on the way, the application sends text messages to the managers’ cellphones, telling them how many shovels to order.
Devising that sort of mash-up, which handles multiple data sources to produce a customized solution, is typically the province of a professional. But the new systems are designed, their creators say, so people with modest technical skills can tailor applications to their needs — while writing little or no code.
For now, the technology is free, as its creators race to sign up customers, extend their franchises and perhaps someday dominate the field. Some of the new systems are aimed at businesses, others at consumers who want to entertain themselves by creating games or ornamenting a blog.
Yahoo’s mash-up tool, Pipes, was introduced in February; no separate software plug-ins are required to try the technology.
Imitating someone else’s program on Pipes is a good way to get started, said Jonathan Trevor of Yahoo, who is one of Pipes’ creators. For instance, a user could start by choosing a sample mash-up that combines apartment listings in a neighborhood with addresses of nearby day care centers, then change the neighborhood and services as needed. “Pipes can be a gradual introduction to Web programming,” he said. “You can start by tweaking someone else’s program and then branch out on your own.”
People can view thousands of mash-ups, created by Pipes users, that are displayed on the site. One program starts with messages people send one another when participating in Second Life, the virtual world. The messages are combined with a translation service, Babel Fish, and converted to the recipient’s language, for example, English.
Pipes is currently in a testing phase. “We’re evolving and changing as people tell us what they need,” Dr. Trevor said.
Another new mash-up system, Popfly from Microsoft, was released in a test form in April. John Montgomery, a program manager on the Microsoft team building Popfly, and one of its originators, said his goal from the start was to build an entirely Web-based tool that ran on a browser, and was easy to use. “We wanted to make the programs so simple,” he said, “that people could use them without writing a line of code.”
Popfly’s target audience is consumers, starting with the MySpace generation. “We want to give them a rich set of tools,” he said, so that they can embed their favorite mash-ups on their Web pages. In a typical application, Popfly mashes together the feed from Twitter, a messaging service, with a tool that resolves the location of the twitterer into latitude and longitude and plots the information on Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. Then users can see exactly where their twittering friends are.
Popfly requires users to install extra software, called Silverlight, that creates striking, three-dimensional representations of the data that users drag and drop in a central area of the screen and combine to create mash-ups.
Mr. Montgomery said Popfly might eventually include advertising. “For now, though, it’s more about getting people to try the platform technology,” he said. People can sign up for invitations at www.popfly.com.
THE program from I.B.M., QEDWiki — the QED stands for quick and easily done — is aimed not at consumers, but at sales staff, accountants and others who need to mash up data from different sources to solve business problems.
Soon there will be a downloadable version of QEDWiki that companies can copy and use within their businesses, said Rod Smith, vice president for emerging Internet technologies at I.B.M.’s software group. For now, the program can be tried at http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/qedwiki.
I.B.M. has posted a 10-minute tutorial on YouTube that takes viewers through QEDWiki.
People want to be able to write programs to exploit new business opportunities, he said. “Companies have lots of databases they want to make mashable,” he said, “and share with their business partners.”