Mashups: Remixing the Web

By Eric Nee  |  Posted 01-05-2006
Ask the average person what a mashup is, and they might guess it's the latest exotic drink, or perhaps the result of a particularly nasty car accident. But don't let the goofy name fool you.

Mashup refers to a new type of Web site that stands a good chance of changing the way Web applications and services are developed.

Simply put, a mashup is a Web application or service that takes content from a number of other Web sites and mixes them together to create a wholly new kind of content.

One of the most advanced mashups is ChicagoCrime, a site developed by journalist-turned-Web developer Adrian Holovaty. First, Holovaty tapped into the Chicago Police Department's publicly available Web site, which contains a large database of crime-report information. Then he coupled that data with Google Maps to create an easy-to-use guide to crime in the Windy City.

Want to know where the latest incidents of "mob action" in Chicago took place? A few clicks pull up a screen showing a map of Chicago, with small balloons marking the location of each crime. Click on a balloon and up pops the exact street location, along with details about the crime itself.

Want to see all the crimes in your own neighborhood? A few clicks later, and a new map appears showing your neighborhood, along with differently colored balloons for every type of crime.

The word mashup comes from pop music, where it is often used in the hip-hop world to describe the remixing of songs. Appropriately enough, computer programmers adapted the word for their own use, to describe the remixing of Web content.

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It is hard to pinpoint the source of mashups, but Paul Rademacher is widely credited as being one of the first to put together a mashup Web site. Like so many other big ideas on the Web, Rademacher's innovation was driven more by necessity and curiosity than by a business plan. He was looking for a place to live, but was having a frustrating time trying to wade through the listings and locate them on a map of the city. To solve his problem he wrote a software program that combined real-estate listings from Craigslist with maps from Google. The result is HousingMaps.

HousingMaps is more than a cool hack. It is an entirely new—and, for many people, a more intuitive—way of finding a place to rent or buy. The service isn't flawless (there's got to be a better way of showing adjacent locations on a map than with enormous, overlapping balloons), but it shows what can be done with some imagination coupled with programming talent. HousingMaps was good enough, however, that Google hired Rademacher.

Of course, importing content from other Web sites is nothing new. Shopping sites, for example, long ago figured out how to scour the Net for prices and then post all of the information on a Web site. By aggregating all the prices in one place, the shopping Web site saves users time and money. But the site doesn't do anything more than reproduce the data. It may present it in a different order (e.g., from cheapest to most expensive), but that's about it.

Mashups take the process one step further. Instead of simply reposting data garnered from a Web site, mashup developers create sites that link directly into the content on other Web sites. This not only provides fresh data, it also allows the mashup to do more data manipulation, thus creating what is, in effect, new content.

Web denizens have long dreamed of doing this sort of thing, but until recently they were frustrated in their attempts to create these new services. Now that is all changing. More and more Web sites, such as Google Maps, are posting their content using open APIs, which makes it possible for other sites to actually link to their content in a dynamic fashion.

The other big change facilitating mashups is that the programming standards and tools that allow developers to create dynamic and interactive Web content and applications have become widely available. The combination of these standards and tools has been dubbed AJAX, short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.

Right now most mashups follow a similar theme, combining maps (usually Google Maps) with content that has some sort of a geographical component (think real estate, retailing or ski reports).

But the potential for mashups goes well beyond enhanced mapping.

That's why Web leaders such as Yahoo, Amazon and Google have all embraced mashups. Each of these companies is posting more and more of its Web content using open APIs. Amazon.com has even developed a Web site, A9, which allows users to, in effect, create their own mashups

Mashups could soon have an impact on the corporate world as well. At a minimum, companies need to decide if they are going to allow others to remix content that appears on their Web sites, and if so, should they make it easy to do by adopting open APIs. The type of programming that mashup developers are utilizing will undoubtedly reverberate in the larger world as well. AJAX, and other programming techniques like it, is certain to affect the way Web applications and services are developed.

Eric Nee, a longtime observer of Silicon valley, has served in a variety of editorial positions at Forbes, Fortune and Upside magazines. Please send comments and questions on this column to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.