While the business world races to catch up with Web 2.0 applications like wikis, RSS feeds, and widgets, the 'next thing' is already here and starting to catch on fast: mashups.

'It's the next natural step of the Web,' says Jason Bloomberg, a senior analyst from Zapthink, an IT advisory firm based in Baltimore, Md.

Mashups are a hybrid genre of Web applications that borrow from two or more other Web applications or data sources and then literally mash them up into one unique application. For example, a company called Infopia has developed a mashup that eBay sellers can use combining the data from their online stores with the tools of Salesforce.com, such as customer relationship management (CRM), inventory management, and online performance analytics.

Anyone can do it

The beauty of the mashup is how easy it is to build them. It's basically a three-step process:

  1. Choose the data sources or applications you want to mashup. This can be any combination of an internal database with a widely used application programming interface (API) from a source like Amazon.com, Google Maps, Flickr, 411Sync, or eBay. There are countless other APIs available to mix and match. Other ways to access data include Web feeds, like RSS, and screen scraping. Screen scraping involves using a simple program that 'scrapes' data from the display output on a website.
  2. Take a feed from each source and aggregate it into one mashup. This may sound like the most intimidating step. It's not. 'Actually, finding the tools to build the mashup is easy. It's more difficult finding the data,' says Bob Braver, president and CEO of StrikeIron, a data service company based in Durham, N.C. Some of the most popular mashup tools and servers include Yahoo Pipes, Microsoft Pop Fly, and Kapow Technologies. Google has a mashup editor in beta, as well. All are easy to use for the non-techie.
  3. Host it. You'll need a domain host or Web server technology that supports server-side scripting technologies like PHP or Ruby on Rails. Many mashup authors are using a company called Dreamhost. It's cheap, well reviewed by customers and is easy to use.

Mashups may be good for business

Like social networking sites and other Web 2.0 trends, it's consumers that tend to be the early adopters with the business community coming along eventually. The same seems to be true with mashups.

Some of the most publicized mashups include Weather Bonk, a mashup site that combines Yahoo! Traffic with Google Maps and various weather feeds that come up with one page featuring live traffic cams and a weather map customized by location. Another popular site is 1001 Secret Fishing Holes, a mashup of Google Maps with a variety of database feeds from sources like the National Park Service, campgrounds and wild life refuges.

However, it is the business realm where mashups will likely have their greatest impact. It's already starting to happen. Jason Bloomberg from Zapthink sees the following trends in business mashups:

  • Data visualization. So far, this means leveraging geographical information with other data feeds. Google Maps, by far, is the most popular API used in mashups. Imagine, for example, combining Google Maps with a realtor's feed of multiple listings in her market, combined with school district borders and educational rankings.
  • Credit card processing. A popular mashup with online retailers is mashing up external credit card processing from the banks with internal e-commerce orders.
  • Call center applications. Customer representatives taking calls and following up on orders by phone typically are staring at more than one screen: one of the website and the online order, the other displaying the CRM screen. Bloomberg says he's seeing more online retailers mashing up the two (the e-commerce component with the CRM) into one view, one screen.

Turbo charge your Web analytics

Another area business mashups are showing promise is in Web analytics for e-commerce sites. Mashups can be used to combine Web traffic data from your site with, for example, the marketing data feed from Dunn & Bradstreet, a leading provider of marketing, credit, and purchasing information. "By mashing up the two, you can look for trends like who visited your site, but didn't buy anything. You can also use mashups between Web analytics and mapping APIs to geographically plot your Web visitors,' says Braver.

Mashups and the IT department

Hybrid Web applications tailor made by the user? That sounds like the makings of a migraine for the IT department. Issues to be considered include security and integration with other applications on the company network, just for starters. However, most IT managers have already learned from the proliferation and easy access of Web 2.0 tools that they're fighting a losing battle retaining control of what online tools employees use.

Braver offers the following advice to antsy IT directors: 'Think of it as experimental. If the mashup proves beneficial to the business, then IT has a prototype to take and perfect.'