Don't look now, but the next big Web-olution (Web revolution?) is right around the corner. And it's going to be very, very messy - or rather, mashy.
We've all heard of mashups, those lovable interbred creations that you get when you take data from Web page A and mix it up with data from Web page B. What you get is not necessarily A+B, but C - or even D, E or Z.
Making a mashup is like shaking the dice - you know you're going to get something when you use one, but you're always a bit surprised when you see the results.
Until now, mashups were something hotshot Web programmers did to pass the time between Internet startup buyouts - a sort of hobby, where they could demonstrate their astute use of Web APIs or Ajax, and come up with something cool.
But the power of mashups is coming to you, the non-programmer, in the very near future. And, I predict, the ability to create mashups with ease is going to open up yet another front for savvy, creative types who have an idea for a great mashup "product" and enable them to make money off their idea.
The leading edge of the mashup revolution is already here, as a matter of fact. Google Maps has been around for awhile, and programmers have come up with all sorts of nifty mashups, using Google Maps and other data, such as the Signal Map (http://www.signalmap.com/), which lets you input a US location and determine which cell phone services work the best. (A directory of some nice Google Map mashups can be found at http://www.gmapsdirectory.com). And, not long ago I wrote about Google Pipes (http://digital.newzgeek.com/pipes.html), which lets users build data stream mashups from various Web sites.
While Pipes was designed for, and is accessible to, the common Web surfer, it helps to have a "programming sense" if you're planning to do heavy-duty mashing using the system. And Google Maps has really required programming ability until now - thus making the mashups created by it a nice end-user collection of data that the programmer thought we would enjoy and use. But it was still his/her show.
That's changing though - and now you don't have to be a programmer to make a Google Map mashup. Several months ago, Google introduced a service called My Maps, which (and I quote) "makes map-making so easy even a caveman can do it!" (http://tinyurl.com/ysoguh). Nothing there about cave-women, but you'll have to take that up with the Google Blog people.
On the My Maps tab (you have to be a Gmail member with an account to use it) there are a series of tools that you can use to draw lines, create markers, enter text etc. You can also add photos, videos and URLs to other sites. You can even add other pre-built maps, like weather or traffic maps, using the newly introduced Mapplets feature (http://tinyurl.com/yuou8t) The results are not as polished as some professional programmer-generated maps, but they're pretty good - at least as good as many of the "regular" Google Maps out there.
And Google is not stopping with maps - it intends to open the world of non-map mashups up to any and all. In the works is a product called Google Mashup Editor (http://editor.googlemashups.com/), which will enable users to build their own text and database oriented mashups, a la Yahoo Pipes. While the Editor is closed to the general public currently (you need to apply to Google to get access to it), you can read all about it in the Editor manual at http://tinyurl.com/2ycbxo. In truth, Google Mashup Editor looks like something that will require some programming skills to use, at least initially - but rumor is that an easier My Maps interface is in the works too. Regardless, though, GME promises to make things much easier for budding mashers.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft, too, has introduced its own little mashup tool, called Popfly (http://www.popfly.com/). Similar to My Maps, Popfly supplies you with application and Web "blocks," connecting them together to create a mashup using strictly visual tools, if you so wish (you can also add html tags to turn the mashup into its own Web page). Popfly is still in alpha, and is rumored to be very hard to get into for testing purposes, as it is by invitation only.
But the most promising looking mashup comes from perhaps the company you'd least expect to be interested in this space - Intel. The company recently introduced in internal beta its new Mashmaker application (http://tinyurl.com/3yzjvu). According to Intel programmers, MashMaker is truly going to bring "mashups to the masses" - no programming skills at all will be necessary, and users won't have to decide in advance what information they want to include in their creation. Instead, they'll be able to click on Web pages as they surf the Internet and add pages they find useful to their mashup - in fact, the program will suggest ways of using Web pages it comes across if you can't figure out how to include it in your mashup yourself. There are some instructive videos and screen shots at the link. Intel says it hopes to release the product "soon."
The arrival of a tool like MashMaker will just heat up the mashup space even more; expect even easier applications from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies. When those applications arrive, the Web will be anybody's oyster - the development of a database that in the past required a major college education just a few years ago will now be accessible to a 12-year-old (or even a caveman, if the Google people are right!).
And that's where the money/creativity part comes in. If you can make money already today using Google map mashups (http://tinyurl.com/25xm36) - a useful but still limited application of the mashup principle - what kind of opportunities will there be when the only barrier to mashing up information is your creativity? Think about it - with visual mashup tools, a lack of programming ability will no longer be what keeps you from manipulating data - and in the case of MashMaker, that data can come from all over the Internet? Any area that is of special interest to you, that utilizes your knowledge, skills and interests, can become fodder for a mashup, once you have access to the raw data. If you do a good enough job, people will come flocking to see (or click, rather).
See the possibilities yet?