Behind Microsofts Popfly

Q&A: John Montgomery, the man behind Microsoft's Popfly, tells where it all came from.

REDMOND, Wash.—Popfly, Microsofts mashup tool for non-programmers, stands to tap a ripe market for the software giant. The man behind the idea, John Montgomery, group program manager for Popfly, discusses his thinking on the concept with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft.

So, what was it that prompted you to raise your hand in the first place to deliver this?

There were a couple of things that happened. One was Id been sitting in developer marketing for a very long time and watching sites like MySpace and Facebook grow and realizing that every person who tricks out their MySpace page is a developer. But Microsoft had no offering for them and, in fact, nobody had an offering for them. The tools … if you look at how you customize a MySpace page, its awful. Its just not a good experience. And I thought, theres just got to be a better way of doing it.

The second thing was Marie Huwe, who was in developer marketing. One of the things Marie followed closely was how many people were going into college and majoring in computer science, and particularly how many of those people were women.

And what research has shown over the past couple of years is that computer science enrollments are declining, which is a big problem for the IT industry in general and for Microsoft also. But even worse, the paltry number of women who were going into those classes was declining even more rapidly. And I think a lot of it has to do with the way we teach computer science.

I talked with a lot of computer science educators through the process of creating Popfly and its very well understood now that boys and girls, men and women, learn differently. Males learn through experimentation. Theyre very comfortable not reading the manual and just going and trying things. Females are much more comfortable when they understand the implications of their actions.

And the problem we have right now is that much of the computer science curricula are still designed around the assumptions that were used around the late 70s and 80s. The curricula are not changing to meet the needs of the current set of employers who are trying to hire people.

Then the third thing was the recognition that if I didnt go and try to build an entirely Web-based tool, probably nobody else at Microsoft was going to try. It appealed to my sense of the ridiculous to go and try to build a tool that ran entirely in a browser.

What were some of your other influences? Meaning, what existing technology did you look at?

I think there were two or three. The first was Visual Basic. And not VB as it exists today, but VB 1.0. It was small, a couple of floppies, it was pretty obvious when you started it what you were supposed to do. You dragged things from the toolbox on the left onto a form thats in the center of the screen and you hung them together with some code. So that was one thing.

The second thing was this site called TryRuby, which was a Ruby interpreter that ran on a server farm but you could connect to it from a browser. And itll teach you Ruby step-by-step.

And then the third thing was watching MySpace, Facebook and Windows Live Spaces and how people on those environments learned how to customize them. And they didnt learn by following instructions and manuals. They learned by borrowing stealing, pasting together and making mistakes. And I realized that if thats the way people learned we should build a tool that works that way.

And at the time there was no Yahoo Pipes or anything like that. We made up the idea that you could build mashups by dragging blocks onto a form. It was just a totally different way of thinking how to build apps.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about the legend of Popfly.

Do you have a business plan or thoughts on how you might monetize this?

Yeah, there is a bunch of different ways to do it. If you actually look at the current builds of Popfly, when you log in youre going to start seeing placeholders for advertising. And insofar as we intend to monetize this, its around this as a page you would get when you log in and thered be a banner ad there. When I visit my profile page, you might see another ad on that page. So thats within the environment.

And then we havent gone the next step, but you can easily imagine scenarios where we make it very easy to integrate ads into the things you create. For example, the mashup creator. We already have a live ads block and you can actually integrate that into your application today and tell it what you want to search for. So say you search for cheese. And you can build applications that call for that and you could have all kinds of ads for cheese. That might be kind of strange, but definitely workable.

So were looking at that as our way of monetizing this.

And the nice thing about being the developer division we also have the option of rooting this and saying were not trying to monetize it, its more about getting people to try the platform technologies.

When did you know you really had something with this thing you were working on? You blogged that it was after you showed Bob Muglia.

Yeah, when we showed it to Bob, it wasnt anything that looked like this. It was so much less sophisticated. It was much more like a command line interface for making mashups. And he got so excited by what we were doing. His exact quote was [Go, go, go. It captured a portion of his imagination.

So the idea that you could take stuff out of Twitter and mash it together with a geo-location service and basically drag and drop to create a mashup that every 30 seconds goes up to Twitter and pulls down the latest last four public posts and gets the latitude and longitude and pushes the whole thing onto a virtual earth map … nobody had this.

In the early days when I was pitching Web services as a marketing guy, this is what I pictured—the idea that you could just take different services and make them talk to each other. This was what I wanted us to go and do as an industry.

And for the people whove been trying to change computer science curricula, its the same thing. Because they see this and they get very excited because they see this tutorial window over here and as a teaching tool, the concept that a tutorial is built into the product and with the perspective of a social network you can use what others have done. Theres this inherent nature of all these applications that they are viral. I create this gadget, you see it, you like it, you want it with photos you customize and you post it to your own thing.

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