The Dawn of the Mashup World – Part I: Challenges, Why and Expectations

Over the past couple of weeks, as a judge in the recently completed Skype mashup competition, I have gained not simply an awareness of some new Skype Extras candidates but also a broader awareness of the emerging "Mashup" world’s environment for creating and delivering mashups. The launch of the Facebook API’s a few months ago has probably a key milestone for generating a much broader awareness of the potential of mashups and experiencing mashups.

In addition to reviewing the contest entries and interacting with mashup publishers such as iotum, PamConsult and several Skype-enabled collaboration services, I spent a most interesting hour last week talking with Thomas Howe and Patrick Murphy of the newly formed Thomas Howe Company whose mission is to provide "expertise in the integration of real time communications and the business process". Also coming into the debate is Jeff Pulver’s challenge for more innovation in voice services..

The challenge of mashups: When desktop publishing first came on the scene two decades ago a whole new world of "graphics amateurs" appeared on the scene creating documents that were, to say the least, somewhat ugly and violated long held rules on publishing formats, layout ,etc.. Eventually desktop publishing products were adopted by graphics houses, training processes emerged in both the private and public sector and the new technology built up its own disciplines around traditional graphics production rules and the new publishing opportunities provided by this new technology. The biggest challenge in this (Skype, Google, Facebook, Google Maps, etc.) API-infused mashup world is to get back to some product management basics to develop and publish mashup-based products and services that solve a real user pain while delivering a value-add. Simply because, as Thomas Howe asserted to me, "the barrier to entry for developing a mashup has become very low" is not a justification for producing one.

The key issues in the mashup world are:

  • Why create a mashup?
  • What are the differing expectations for mashups?
  • How are the tools for mashups evolving?
  • How are mashups getting promoted?
  • What is the business model for mashups?

Why create a mashup? There are two emerging high level market segments for mashups: consumer and enterprise. The former, as exemplified by several of the Skype Extras, provides broadly appealing applications, such as PamFax, which create a value-add for the Skype user. In this case publisher PamConsult has simplified the process of faxing MS Office documents anywhere worldwide. The Thomas Howe Company approaches the enterprise market by solving business process issues through the merging of voice such as to extend and support a business process. Example: one company handles six to twelve thousand voice calls a month simply to reset passwords; can this be resolved through a mashup of voice and database technology?

Is there a potential for market convergence? Will some of the consumer applications find their way into enterprises because of their cost effectiveness?

What are the differing expectations for mashups? This is an area of considerable debate. Does migrating a traditional voice application, such as Call Center management, to a VoIP-based system constitute a mashup? a Voice 2.0 application? One could argue that Skype makes the process of adding chat, conferencing, file transfer, etc. to a Call Center solution much easier and more cost effective. And a Skype-based Call Center is certainly appealing to businesses who cannot afford the six figure cost of a traditional PBX-based call center solution..

Jeff Pulver is offering to help a raw startup get going provided they can come up with "new and original ideas" and come from people currently not involved in a startup who want to "take on the status quo". His trigger was a panel discussion back in July on "Where are the VoIP Services":

What I what I was looking for was something different. Something cool. Something that truly helped to redefine communications. But I didn’t hear about anything remotely interesting.

Thomas Howe Company focuses its efforts on looking for enterprises where the most difficult issue is to get recognition within the enterprise of the existence of a (business process) problem that can be resolved by using voice in support of a larger (and probably existing) business application.

In some sense this challenge has effectively been out there since the publication almost two years ago of Alec Saunders Voice 2.0 Manifesto; at this stage we must ask:

  • Why have we not already seen some "innovative" applications of the type and at the level Jeff is looking for?
  • Is the entire concept of "innovative voice applications" an apparent technology in search of a problem?
  • Are the criteria and expectations for innovative voice applications just too diverse or too esoteric to see an obvious answer that may be sitting in front of us?
  • Why have services such as Skylook and Unyte desktop sharing seen success? Surely integration of (i) Skype into Outlook (thereby addressing a segment of the CRM market) and (ii) desktop sharing as an additional conversation mode into Skype are mashups. With revenues being generated (and, in the latter case, an acquisition), they certainly demonstrate value-add and an initially sustainable business model.
  • Is Thomas Howe correct in his assertion during our interview that, aside from monetization of services through advertising (à la Google and now Facebook), enterprise solutions that bring improvements in business processes are the only sustainable business model for mashups?
  • Is the evolution of high user volume social networks such as Skype, Facebook, MSN Live Messenger, MySpace a pre-requisite infrastructure requirement for successful mashups? (in the same manner that VoIP did not really evolve until broadband Internet was widely available).
  • What, if any, is the difference between voice applications and voice mashups? From Thomas Howe:

From a non-technical perspective, the difference is pretty simple. Voice mashups are applications that happen to use voice. Voice applications are applications that are centered around using voice.

Using Thomas’ criteria, Skype for Salesforce.com is a true voice mashup; the Salesforce.com application has existed for some time prior to the existence of Skype for Salesforce.com. Yet, it brings productivity improvements to Salesforce.com’s customers.

Bottom line for expectations: Ask how a mashup can provide value-add to your activities and/or become a facilitator of your business processes.

Part II (to come): Tools, Promotion and Business Models

References: Programmable Web, Mashables.com

Tags: Mashup, Skype, Google, Facebook, PamFax, PamConsult, iotum, Skylook, Unyte, social networks, Salesforce.com, Skype for Salesforce.com, Thomas Howe, Thomas Howe Company

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.
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