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Microsoft launches no-code mashup tool

Visual mashups for the MySpace generation

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Popfly, Microsoft's first Silverlight application, is a visual development tool for creating mashups without writing any code.

Dan Fernandez, lead product manager in Microsoft's developer division, wants Popfly to reach what he calls "the MySpace generation" who want cutting edge web gadgets without cutting edge coding.

"We have Visual Studio Express and we actually have had 14 million downloads since November 2005. To give you an idea, World Of Warcraft, a very popular game, has eight million users worldwide. So we have huge download numbers, especially for tools.

"But one of the things we found is a lot of people that tried it weren't programmers, they had never written a line of code and they thought it was hard. This is the MySpace generation. They're writing markup, they understand tags, they're not necessarily writing their own JavaScript but they're taking JavaScript and tweaking it - it's the copy/paste world. This is our tool for the people that want to create stuff; they don't necessarily know how to write the first line of code but they want to create something and have it running within a couple of minutes, with no code."

Fernandez sees a wide market for Popfly. "The number of worldwide developers using non-professional tools from MySpace to VBA to simple scripts - that's over a 100 million people. They vary in sophistication and we want to have tools for all types of sophistication. The biggest number [of them] will be the users for Popfly; they want to create, they don't want to code. Our goal is democratise development."

He demonstrated using Popfly to create a gadget showing tagged and geo-tagged photos from Flickr in a 3D sphere, with the image you hover over zooming to show a larger view and metadata.

"This is our gratuitous 3D," he joked. Then changed it to mapping the images on Virtual Earth. The Popfly interface shows a list of controls that it calls "blocks".

According to Fernandez, "you can think of blocks as wrappers for things like data services, data transformation services, logic and presentation services. Under the covers it's just JavaScript, HTML, XML, and Silverlight. They're totally extensible, you can look at the source code of our blocks and remix it. With Silverlight 1.1 the people who are .NET developers and don't want to use JavaScript can use this. You could write a Perl block."

You can also add your own HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

To mash two services together, you drag the appropriate blocks onto the design service, drag lines between the nodes on each block to connect them, choose the operation you want to use and get a live preview on the design surface. The blocks have what Fernandez calls "smart defaults" so a block for photos will look for an image URL automatically. You can see a real time preview even without having an API key for the service you're working with if the service allows demos. While working on the blocks the preview displays in a transparent layer in the background.

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