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Seeking Direction

Live Clipboard promised a rich future of Microsoft-inspired mashup applications. Where has the hype gone?

Mashup applications have been getting a lot of attention for their ability to combine various services in an ad hoc manner, using tools like asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) to stitch together services. For instance, a real-estate mashup can take property listings from one Web service, link it with satellite photos and digital maps from another, and add search capabilities as well as perhaps photos of the route to the property and driving directions.

Corporate mashups are coming. And, no surprise, Microsoft is maneuvering to be a player. Last March Ray Ozzie stunned the open source world when he demonstrated a "Live Clipboard" for the Web -- a Windows Clipboard -- like tool that would let users cut and paste from the Web, including links to live data encapsulated in microformats. It's a way to create mashups with a user-friendly, point-and-click interface. Users or developers can create compound applications simply by cutting and pasting together various components.

What Ozzie said next caught everyone off-guard. The technology, he announced, would be licensed under a "Creative Commons" license -- a sort of hybrid license that protects authors' copyrights while still allowing free distribution via open licenses. The venue he chose for his announcement was telling as well: O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference in San Francisco, a conclave of leaders in the open source community and other alpha geeks.

The Live Clipboard announcement was preceded by Microsoft's announcement in the fall of 2005 that the company was shifting focus to the idea of Software as a Service (SaaS). That initiative promised to completely transform the company under Ozzie, who succeeded Bill Gates as chief software architect last summer.

This month Microsoft ships its ASP.NET AJAX tools -- a toolkit meant to make asynchronous JavaScript and XML easier to use for building Web and SaaS applications. The field is already a crowded one, with more than 100 AJAX toolsets available -- many of them open source. But Ozzie is apparently not to be deterred.

Open Season
Indeed, since Ozzie joined Microsoft nearly two years ago, the company has shown a willingness to embrace openness. Most notably, in November, the company announced an attempt at peaceful co-existence between its proprietary source roots and at least a fair portion of the open source community when it made peace with Novell regarding its popular SuSE Linux.

One key component of that deal is a "covenant" that Microsoft won't sue for patent infringement any developers who perform non-commercial work on Linux. Novell's SuSE Linux is not the only IP in the open source world that Microsoft has included in its no-sue zone.

What's Going on Here?
Is this a new Microsoft, transformed over-night by The Great Oz? Hardly. Many observers feel it's a pragmatic Microsoft whose leadership sees the writing on the wall: the future largely lies in services, or at least at the nexus of software and services. And in order to be a winner, Microsoft has to play well with others -- namely the open source world.

The company has also just delivered 2007 Office System, the most comprehensive release of the office productivity suite ever, which the company characterizes as a key development platform. So while Microsoft is migrating toward SaaS, executives have been touting the strengths of combining the company's historical rich client software with SaaS.

"The heart of the Live strategy is all about software plus services ... [that's] a very important distinction," says Jeff Hansen, general manager of Live marketing. Company executives have said repeatedly this is about more than just applications running inside the browser. Indeed, the company continues to roll out more and more application programming interfaces (APIs) for its growing Windows Live and Office Live services offerings, in an effort to entice developers to create their own services.

The count for those services now numbers more than 40, with more on the way. And while the early services have been aimed primarily at consumers and small business, the company has clearly articulated that hosted services for midsize and large businesses are on the agenda over time. Last summer, Microsoft announced it will offer a hosted customer relationship management (CRM) service for small and midsize businesses, for instance.

Hansen cites a scenario where a pharmaceutical company could take advantage of the CRM service and create a mashup for sales people that would provide access to that service via a mobile device.

Over time, Hansen acknowledged those Live APIs will become a development platform of sorts. "Moving forward, we're trying to bring that more together," Hansen says, though he declined to give any specifics. Industry observers and company insiders hint a development platform is coming and that more information is likely to be disclosed at the company's Mix07 Web developers conference in Las Vegas next April 30 through May 2.

It's not much of a leap to go the next step. Toss in the AJAX tools and Live Clipboard, and nearly anyone can do mashups.

Missing in Action?
But where is Live Clipboard today? The industry buzz when it was first demoed was deafening -- prompting alpha geek bloggers to herald it as a breakthrough tool to help create Web 2.0 applications, or what Ozzie just refers to as "the programmable Web." But after a couple of months of furious activity, including release of a .91 specification, work (or at least mention of work) all but died out.

Lately, that has concerned some of Ozzie's peers.

"I was at eTech but I haven't heard anything [new about Live Clipboard] since April ... [however], it was pretty obvious that it wasn't fully cooked," says Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems Inc.
"We thought this would be more of a turning point. ... I personally expected more follow through from Ozzie on Live Clipboard," adds Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Tim Bray"The intellectual property landscape is really in a disastrous state. The whole business model is broken.”
Tim Bray, Director of Web Technology, Sun Microsystems Inc.

Although the grapevine has gone silent, Live Clipboard is far from dead, says George Moromisato, director of user experience with Microsoft's CSA (chief software architect) concept development team, under Ray Ozzie's brother Jack. The group is dedicated to Ozzie's own special projects, including Live Clipboard.

"There are a bunch of teams internally that we're trying to get to use Live Clipboard," says Moromisato, who came to Microsoft when the company bought out Ozzies' Groove Networks in April 2005. For instance, Windows Live Writer -- a blogging tool released in beta in August -- supports Live Clipboard.

Part of the success (or failure) of Live Clipboard rests on what are called "microformats." For instance, a calendar application will obviously contain specific types of information. By coming up with a standard way of specifying that information in XHTML, any program that can read that microformatted data can consume it.

Copyright issues could crater innovative mashup applications.
[click image for larger view]
Copyright issues could crater innovative mashup applications.

The work of defining those data specifications falls to Microformats.org. Among the types of information in work as microformats are contacts, calendars, outlines, XHTML meta data profiles and others.

"On the Web so much is just snippets of microformats such as a calendar entry," Moromisato says. Live Clipboard, meanwhile, provides the wrapper around the microformats, enabling "a well-defined way to put something into the clipboard."

As far as a 1.0 spec for Live Clipboard goes, Microsoft is waiting until it sees what kinds of obstacles developers encounter before trying to draft a final version. What's needed is a single application that puts the technology to the test. Moromisato says that would probably be a Microsoft application.

"The goal is to have normal Web pages [that contain] microformats ... there would be a notification on the page that there's rich data behind it," Moromisato says.

The Long View
One of the issues, of course, is how widespread an enabling technology like microformats becomes. Not everyone agrees it's going to become the de facto standard for information exchange. "Mashups on the Web are, by and large, not based on microformats [so] the jury is still out on them," says Bray.

But a key challenge for mashups remains: What to do to resolve questions around intellectual property? Who owns it? How is it licensed? How do you charge for its use?
"The whole IP landscape is really in a disastrous state," says Bray. "The whole business model is broken."

Inside the corporate firewall may be a different matter, because most information and other intellectual property inside the company network is owned by the business.

"You can have the best of both worlds with a smart Web API. People can quickly and cheaply build new applications that use corporate data in new ways. The way forward is clearly with Web-style APIs," says Bray.

But not everyone is convinced of the appropriateness of corporate mashups.
"Inside the corporate firewall, mashups are not the only option," says Greg DeMichillie, lead analyst for development tools at researcher Directions on Microsoft. In the controlled environment of the corporate network, developers can choose from Office, Visual Studio 2005 and SharePoint technologies, he says.

That sentiment is not universal. They're a good idea, Interarbor Solutions' Gardner says, and not just for doing mashups inside the firewall, but also for the "extended enterprise."

"People are looking to these open services as interfaces to free up their data, using tools like Live Clipboard to take data from an Office environment and apply it to some different activity," Gardner adds.

Meanwhile, observers are getting antsy. Gardner wants to see "more information out of Microsoft as to what they plan for Live and Live Clipboard at this point. It's in Microsoft's best interests."

Longer term, the ability to use tools like AJAX and Live Clipboard to build corporate mashups that help customers achieve a healthier bottom line may also find their place in enterprise development arsenal.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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