Microsoft steps up to plate with Popfly apps builder

Service is geared to non-programmers

Extending application development to non-programmers, Microsoft on Friday plans to introduce a hosted tool called Popfly, for building Web pages and mashups.

Also part of the Popfly equation is a social networking component to connect people creating content. Microsoft envisions a YouTube-like platform for sharing of applications.

Previously known as Project Springfield, Popfly is "a tool for building Web pages, mashups, and gadgets and it's online," said Dan Fernandez, lead product manager for non-professional tools at Microsoft. Popfly currently is in alpha release state, with the company not ready to commit to a general release date.

"Our goal with Popfly is to provide a totally new tool for people that have no programming experience whatsoever to be able to create their own distinctive, dynamic Web experiences," Fernandez said.

Featured in Popfly is a concept called blocks, which provides a Lego-like assembly of application parts. "Think of them as wrappers for more complex operations," such as an AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) HTML-enabled virtual Earth map, a Silverlight video player, or a Silverlight photo stream, Fernandez said.

Also, users can access photos from Windows Live Spaces or Flickr and use those in Popfly slideshows.

"The point is, I don't need to write code for any of those scenarios. I literally can snap up the block I want to do and create a unique Web application," Fernandez said. Microsoft's Silverlight 1.0 multimedia display technology provides the foundation for Popfly.

Users can embed a Popfly application such as a 3D visualization within a blog via the MetaWeblog API. Popfly also can be extended with Microsoft's Visual Studio Express tool to bolster application sharing.

An early user of Mapfly, Aaron King, who works in marketing at Web application developer Etelos, said he is using it to build mashups pertaining to music, in which sources such as and Flicker are linked.

"It’s pretty easy. There's just a list of different data sources from the Web that you can use. They're pretty common sources that people would be familiar with," King said, who is not a developer himself.

He noted Mapfly is still in its nascent stage and said it needs improvements in areas such as development of Web pages to surround a mashup. But King added he anticipates those improvements will be made.

Popfly features a social network for sharing applications. "Similar to what YouTube did for videos, we can do for apps," Fernandez said.  Microsoft's YouTube analogy raises eyebrows, since it already has been speculated that Silverlight would require a response from YouTube owner Google.

Mashup development is supported on Popfly in that users can link their online "persona," which, for example, could include an Amazon ecommerce application, photos an RSS feeds, Fernandez said.

"The goal for us is to kind of have a way to represent your online ID and create apps that allow you to do that really easily," Fernandez said.

Popfly is free. Microsoft hopes to leverage it to drive adoption of technologies such as Silverlight and Windows Live Services.

"The next killer app could be discovered through Popfly," Fernandez said.

Microsoft will extend invitations to persons who sign up to try out Popfly. There will be 2,000 persons participating at the start but that number will expand.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.