Software giant Microsoft is getting the attention of the geek blogosphere for moving its drag-and-drop Web mashup development tool, Popfly, into public testing. Why? Because it has a cute name? Because it's being pitched to everyday Internet users who aren't developers — women, even? (As if women don't program now.) Because it's being pitched as an easy way to build widgets for popular social networks MySpace and Facebook? For all those reasons, sure. But that's not why you should care about Popfly.
On some levels, Popfly is nothing new. It's similar to Yahoo Pipes, Apple's soon-to-be-released widget builder Dashcode, personalization tools in various Google properties, and any number of new portals which allow you to build your own web applications. None of these Web mashup builders have attracted the hoped-for audience.
Why? Nondevelopers simply do not develop applications; hence the "non-" prefix. When they do, they build bad applications when there are plenty of existing, free alternatives. Social networks, the Web, and desktops are already overrun by thousands of redundant, useless widgets. This crowded market is dominated by a few quality Web applications built by professional developers who do it for a living. The next innovation is not going to come from an amateur using a dumbed-down beta product.
If someone tries to get you excited about a Popfly widget, the odds are high five other widgets performing the same function already exist. The odds will be low that the Popfly widget will be the best of the class.
But Microsoft should, nevertheless, be excited about Popfly. Rarely has Redmond produced such a simple, visually appealing tool for developers. After playing with Popfly, talented developers will likely migrate to more powerful tools. But Microsoft is badly losing in the battle with Adobe's Flash. Anything that gives Popfly, and the Silverlight technology it's based on, a bit of buzz will redound to Microsoft's long-term benefit. Even if you and I never end up finding a single Popfly-based application worth using.