Friday, October 26, 2007

QEDWiki is a great tool, but is it really for creating mashups?

Believe it or not, this post is a review of QEDWiki, the mashup development tool being promoted by IBM. QEDWiki’s current home is with alphaWorks, whose charter is to put new IBM technologies into the hands of developers. AlphaWorks helps IBM get products and ideas fleshed out before bringing them to market. IBM says that 40% of alphaWorks offerings end up in IBM products. The other very cool message is that IBM is willing to experiment and drop 60% of its alphaWorks research products by the wayside. Wouldn't you just love to have IBM's research budget?

AlphaWorks has many products available for download, but the one currently getting all the press in mashup circles is, of course, QEDWiki, part of IBM’s mashup starter kit.

Unsurprisingly, IBM claims QEDWiki uses a wiki metaphor to allow non-developers to build mashups. Just as with a wiki, end users can create pages, modify or copy pages if they have permissions, share pages and even put in links to jump from one page to another.

That's just what I did. It was very easy to create a page and drop in widgets. I tied the various page elements together so clicking on a selection in a feed changed the contents of a URL widget elsewhere on the page. I used a web service from StrikeIron to look up the city and state associated with a zip code, and even let QEDWiki build the form to ask for input. It certainly wouldn’t take a developer to understand and use QEDWiki. While usability still needs some work (there are odd refresh problems and widget placement issues) the tool itself seemed sound.

After I pulled in a number of feeds, added widgets, and constructed URLs based on widget contents I had very quickly created a visually appealing and functional…portal.

Yep, I said portal.

Here’s the problem. When I wanted to bring different data streams together, I had to do it elsewhere, not within QEDWiki. So I found myself running to Yahoo! or Kapow or even to create feeds. (OK, the feeds weren't, strictly speaking, mashed) Once I mashed the feeds I could drop them onto my wiki page, but I couldn’t use QEDWiki itself to mash the contents.

Here’s another problem. When I wanted to pull data from different web pages into a single unified end-user experience, I had to run over to Kapow to create the web service, then go back over to QEDWiki to use the service within my wiki page.

You might conclude from what I’ve said so far that I didn’t like QEDWiki. On the contrary. I liked it very much. Other than the aforementioned usability issues, it was very easy to get started and definitely was not a tool that required development know-how. Once I had mashed content elsewhere I loved being able to drop elements on the page and link them together. It was great to pull search results based on a dissected URL parameter list. It was a no-brainer to click on a feed item and have another widget populated with the data served up from the item's link. I don’t pretend to have tried every single feature, but the features I did use were excellent.

It just wasn’t a mashup. QEDWiki consumes mashed content. It displays mashed content. It does not itself help mashers create mashed content.

That looks like it is the responsibility of Mashup Hub. Mashup Hub is the other part of IBM’s mashup starter kit, along with QEDWiki. I’ve queued it up for review some time in the future, but just looking at the specs, it looks like a server to transform behind-the-firewall data into feeds. While that’s great functionality, it’s hardly new or innovative. Unless I hear otherwise, I'm going to drop it at the end of my eval queue.

Go ahead and give QEDWiki a try. I'm betting you will enjoy working with it. Don’t get rid of your other mashup tools just yet, however. You will definitely need them.

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