Thursday, April 06, 2006


monster mash: the opportunity and its problems

Seems I am reading more and more about "mashed" applications: amalgamations of different applications, wrapped together by a savvy integrator. The concept isn't new, though it has recently become common, and seems posed to explode. Developments in software are allowing easier integration of modules designed by different parties: often parties who would never have imagined their respective children playing together. It can result in marvelous creative fusion, but also poses some unique challenges for the user experience.

Mashed applications bring "hacks" (web APIs, RSS syndication) to the masses. Before recently, integration has been difficult. In a recently completed dissertation, Mika Myller writes: "the challenging usability problem of digital environment of everyday life is that people are forced to act as 'systems integrator'. However, from our point of view the problem is not that people have to integrate products but that they cannot or they have to 'integrate' the products most of the time they are using them because there are not enough possibilities (e.g. open interfaces) for people or third parties easily to compose independent products to systems of systems."

Mashed applications empower individuals by integrating different knowledge, sometimes in ways not imagined. Fantastic. But such a concoction can have a life of its own, and without supervision, cause confusion and disappointment.

Panayiotis Periorellis notes that mash applications, known formally as a "system of systems," can be unstable. Consider the case of the travel website, which brings together hotel, airline and insurance offerings. One can integrate systems from different sources, but the goals of these sources are different, and can potentially change without notice. Something as simple as the length of notice to cancel a reservation can differ. From the users' point of view, they are dealing with a single entity, the travel website, and expect a predictable and uniform experience. But the single entity can be a mirage.

I expect the usability issues arising from systems of systems will become increasingly important in the future. Mashed applications offer a lot, but will need to deliver what they promise.

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