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Making Mashup Masterpieces
Business just got a little more hands on -- and a lot more interesting.
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It's rare that a day goes by without a consumer turning to technology to make her life a bit easier. Business leaders also depend on technology to do their jobs; the problem is actually getting that technology to do what they want. Mashups are one way to tame the tech beast: They're Web-based applications, sometimes called widgets, that unite disparate sources of content to create an integrated tool that serves a new -- and, perhaps, more powerful -- functionality.

In the beginning, there may have been only one common flavor of mashup -- location, location, location. In fact, IBM's Director of Lotus Mashups Mikael Orn jokes that the only way people used to discuss mashups was to have a map. Today's complex business needs, however, extend beyond simple electronic pushpins cluttering up a map, and today's enterprises -- large and small -- face issues, many of them customer-facing, that require immediate resolution. Mashups, in many cases limited only by the imagination of their creators, are empowering businesses to tackle business problems with the power of technology -- without having to wait for the technology department's helping hand.

Google Maps may be a typical starting point for a mashup, but the endless possibilities can drive insight into your business by combining data in new ways. Last fall, for example, the Faceforce application appeared on the social networking site Facebook, drawing on information in the user's Salesforce.com system. This "social enterprise mashup" allows a sales manager to interact and manage her contacts from two data sources as a single service. On an even larger scale, Google and Salesforce.com announced an alliance in mid-April that brings together CRM and Google Apps, office-productivity software -- email, spreadsheets, and word processing -- residing "in the cloud," and positioned as a Web-based competitor of Microsoft's Dynamics CRM and Office applications.

"Mashups are really important...in the way [that] search became really important," says Anne MacFarland, director of data strategies and information solutions at technology consulting firm The Clipper Group. Like search, mashups allow people to aggregate information in ways that never could have been accomplished before -- or at least, not efficiently.

A confluence of activity in the market has helped mashups emerge as a relevant tool. Enabling technology has set the stage: Web 2.0 in the enterprise is gaining traction, Web browsers have better Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) support, and open-source code has grown more popular. Taken together, these trends are enabling developers to utilize applications and make changes with much less overhead. Naturally, better technology gives way to better opportunities. "People are trying to do things, but quicker," Orn says. This bodes well for the new generation of employees, who were practically raised on the Internet, and as Orn describes, have a habit of taking matters into their own hands.

This inclination is also spurred by the pressures of an economic downturn, forcing businesses to avoid the traditional (and more cumbersome) practices of acquiring or developing applications, according to Jeffrey Kaplan, managing director of technology-consulting firm ThinkStrategies. Moreover, he adds, as businesses become increasingly mobile, the only way to keep up with the dispersed marketplace is through the Web.

Finally, with the support of software giants, mashups are gaining the high profile needed to enter the mainstream. At its Impact 2008 Conference in April, for example, IBM unveiled its Mashup Center and WebSphere sMash (an environment for developers to develop Web 2.0 applications using programming language that is more simplified and agile than traditional Javascript), a move that experts say further validates mashups as an important tool to the enterprise.

The Mashup Center allows business users -- or, more to the point, nontechnical users -- to take a widget from personal, enterprise, or Web sources, drag it onto a page along with other widgets, and very quickly, without any coding, create new applications. Applying other aspects of Web 2.0 technology -- user-generated content and the wisdom of crowds -- the Web-based software also hosts a catalogue of widgets and mashups ranked, rated, and commented on by fellow users, who are also free to share and build off of existing widgets to develop their own spin. "The real power of this -- the real kickoff -- is when [IBM], our business partners, and our end users all start sharing these widgets in the catalogue," Orn says.

Judging by the rapid pace at which mashups are evolving, research firm Gartner advises businesses to incorporate this technology into their corporate strategies immediately. Business may be complex, but that's what technology is for, the firm advises.

"If we can make a tool appear very simple -- so it looks almost too simple to do anything powerful -- then we're hitting the mark," Orn says.

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