What do you need to know about popfly?

You may have seen various annoucements last week about Popfly, a new mashup / web creation / social interaction tool that we're developing. I didn't blog it immediately as I wanted the dust to settle a bit before talking about it.

If you haven't come across it yet. it's one of those things you should have some awareness of (if for no other reason than someone will spring the name on you at some point and expect you to know what it is). The "overview" is worth scanning as it gives you a pretty good insight into what it's all about.

However, I'm going to give you my take on the few bullets you probably need to know about Popfly. This is very much my view and not Microsoft's official view of course :-). I've seen versions of Popfly (it had a couple of codenames) going back some months and it's turned into something pretty impressive.

Anyway, here we go:

1) It's aimed mainly at enthusiasts and so-called "non-professional developers". But I guarantee you'll find it great fun to use and play around with. Just don't expect to build your next corporate website on top of it. Having said that, it makes for a very nice quick prototyping tool.

2) Popfly is totally online. There's no client software to install, it all runs within a web browser (although if you're using VS 2005 you can make use of that for building blocks, see below)

3) There are 3 sides to Popfly: The web-site creation side that lets you build a website from templates; A mashup creation side that's the real wow for me, more on this below; And the social networking side where you can connect with other users and share creations, ideas, ratings, etc

4) The piece most people fixate on is the mashup creation piece. It's very nice indeed. Topline of how this works: You can work with a number of so-called "blocks" - these are two things: Mainly they're easy-to-use representations of data sources from around the web, but some of them are focused on the manipulation of that data. So for example, there's block for pulling photos from Flickr, and another block for displaying the pictures in a page-turning album. Just drag these two blocks onto your workspace, drag a link between them, and you're done. Or instead of the album, connect the Flickr block to Virtual Earth to see geo-tagged photos instantly plotted on a map. It's all beautifully done and incredibly easy to use (I timed it: To create a mashup that takes photos from Flickr using a keyword search, and plots them on a map using Virtual Earth took me 12 seconds to build and preview. It really is that simple).

5) So where do these blocks come from? We've created some but anyone can create them. They're just pieces of Javascript and you can build them right within the Popfly interface if you want to. Or you can use Visual Studio 2005 (the free Web Developer Express version is fine) to create them if you prefer.

6) What is a "PopFly"? Well, I'm told that it's a baseball term where the ball is hit high into the air to make an easy catch. What symbolism is at work here then? I don't know to be honest, feel free to take your own view.

Popfly is in a restricted Alpha at the moment so there is very limited access. As soon as it opens up I'll let you know, it's definitely fun to play around with.