My dad commented to me that the Google Maps Pedometer tool was a good example of a technical mash-up, a phenomenon he’d read about in BusinessWeek (subscription required or use BugMeNot) last week. Much like the musical version, technical mash-ups are mixing and matching tools from different sources that were not intended to be used together. Things like the pedometer, or the google maps visualization for craigslist ads, which is the example used in the BusinessWeek article. The article also mentions GreaseMonkey, a tool I’ve heard a lot about for doing user-side modification of web pages.
What’s interesting to me is this vision of where the future is going. That we’re moving away from the monolithic days of operating systems that do everything, or enterprise server applications like Lotus Notes, and back towards the Unix model of having a toolbox full of simple tools that each do one thing simply, but well. And it’s up to users to put those tools together for themselves in appropriate ways to do what they need. Don Norman proposed a similar future in The Invisible Computer, but he was talking about hardware “information appliances”, and I was skeptical about designing the interface between them. But on the web (or “Web 2.0″, a term for which I still have no definition), the interfaces are already mostly established, from TCP/IP, to HTTP, to XML, to SOAP, to all that other stuff.
I think Google has the right idea in publishing the interfaces to their tools, as can be seen by the way in which their tools are being incorporated in every technical mash-up being built. From their search capability to the maps, they design good stuff and then tell people how to use it. The only problem with this model is I’m not sure how you make money at it. If Google’s tools are being used everywhere underneath the surface, how do they make money off it? Do they charge a micro-fee every time they’re accessed? Do they insist that if you use their tools, you slap a “Google Inside” logo on your tool, the way Intel forced PC manufacturers? It will be interesting to see how the economic model develops in parallel with the technical model.
One other random connection that occurred to me while I was thinking about this post: I think this ties into some of the ideas of Stuart Kauffman. In particular, he mentions how combinatorics enables simple building blocks to achieve unimaginably complex behavior; e.g. if you have one hundred tools, you can combine two of those tools in ten thousand ways, three of those tools in a million ways, etc. The future belongs to letting users and developers mix and match tools for their own uses, because they will find good tool combinations far faster than any manufacturer can. Furthermore, they can create tool combinations that serve very small niche markets, in effect serving the long tail of the market. As noted, the economic model remains to be worked out, but it’s pretty clear this is where things are heading.
In an amusing coincidence, I was in the process of writing this post up this morning when I read Dav’s post that is going in a similar direction. Of course, he’s actually doing something about it besides philosophizing. But that’s another story.