Is Microsoft’s Popfly an easy out?

Microsoft was a little late to the internet game, that much isn’t new. In 1993, Bill Gates said “we’re not interested in the internet”. (Mind you, he also said that 640K of memory should be enough for anybody.) Microsoft has certainly done a lot to reverse that initial stumble (witness the internet services they’ve acquired and/or sold — Hotmail and Expedia; and services developed, such as Microsoft Live), and Popfly is another sign of Microsoft truly understanding the new wave.

Back in May of this year, Microsoft launched their first product to the masses before it was officially “ready”. Popfly was the first to actually carry the label “Alpha”. It’s now in beta. But is it ready for prime time?

Late to the game, Microsoft waded right into the Web 2.0 pond wearing a pair of mashup Speedos. And like in real life, you don’t really want to look too closely at it.

To be fair, Microsoft has made a valiant effort. Mashups are a very powerful tool, and are one of the best examples of the Web 2.0 era. They recognised a failing in one of the best mashup tools yet created: Yahoo! Pipes. Namely, that it’s a pain in the ass to use if you have no idea what you’re doing.

Microsoft has tried to cross that bridge with Popfly. And now that it’s in its Beta version, we’re starting to get a better appreciation of what it can do … and where the gaps still lie.

I avoided it when it first came out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Microsoft over the last 26 years (if this doesn’t date me, nothing else will), it’s that Microsoft tends to not get a product working effectively until its third iteration. Maybe with the beta, though, Popfly might show some promise? And not having the history of the alpha, I might be able to walk in with a little less bias.

Overall, feelings are mixed. Does Microsoft have the right idea? If they’re goal is to make mashups easier, then yes. But that’s not to say they’ve got it right.

On the plus side:

  • Interface is easy to pick up, even if the Block connectors require a bit of thought
  • Blocks allow for simple connection, and developer extension
  • As much as I hate to admit it, I like the sound effects

On the minus side:

  • Microsoft created XMLHTTPRequest (the core of AJAX and behind much of the ballyhoo of Web 2.0), so why doesn’t it appear more in the system?
  • Popfly requires Silverlight — apparently Microsoft hasn’t learned anything from Google or Yahoo about creating interfaces without using plugins (read: barrier to entry)
  • I couldn’t use the Google Maps API (without creating a new Block), which really kicked off the concept of a mashup — seems like quite the oversight

On the confusing side:

  • It looks as if Popfly also hopes to create a social network with user webpages, images, and profile information. Is Popfly about mashups or social networking?

And as a suggestion:

  • Popfly needs more generic Lego blocks that work without API keys so users can start working right away
  • Better organisation or some form of filtering by functional tags
  • If a Block currently occupying the stage is incompatible with other blocks, don’t let a user choose them
  • Provide visual feedback when the combination of Blocks produces an output of some kind

For someone creating a mashup, it works. The difficulty isn’t as high as Yahoo! Pipes (where you need to know your sources and how they’ll blend together), but there’s also no way of you knowing if this will work right away. In fact, even after you’ve put something together, it’s hard to know if you’re going to get any result at all. In some ways, this is almost a half solution — sort of like putting a battery into a flashlight without knowing which way the battery should be inserted.

In the end, Popfly seems to be little more than a way of demonstrating what Silverlight can do, and how you can use Silverlight to create functionality. It’s not the homerun Microsoft needs. But at least they’ve shown they can get to first base.

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