By Rob Hof If there's one thing technology does best, it's freeing the masses from the tyranny of experts. Word processors made us all accomplished typists. Spreadsheets wrested the power of financial analysis from the green-eyeshade guys. Then the World Wide Web enabled thousands of people who never ran a physical store to make a living as merchants in eBay's (EBAY) global marketplace.
But one job has remained the exclusive province of about 2 million tech wizards: writing software. As a result, programs have always been hard to learn and even harder to customize to our particular needs.
Now, a new startup aims to bust open the arcane world of software creation. On Oct. 6, JotSpot, in Palo Alto, Calif., will debut a Web service that it hopes will enable 10 million-or-so minimally tech-savvy people -- those who know their way around a spreadsheet program -- to quickly write customized Web programs for managing customer support, tracking job candidates, and the like. Think of it as do-it-yourself software.
"Like eBay empowers the part-time seller, we want to empower part-time programmers," says JotSpot co-founder and Chief Executive Joe Kraus. "We've lowered the energy and skill level required to create an application."
LEGO STYLE. How? JotSpot, founded by Kraus and Graham Spencer, two founders of the onetime Web portal Excite@Home, is harnessing the power of a once-obscure Web software called wiki. Named after the Hawaiian word for "quick," wikis are collaborative Web sites that anyone can create instantly and where others can post and edit material (see BW, 6/7/04, "Something Wiki This Way Comes"). The sites have rapidly spread as quick-and-dirty online scratchpads among small corporate groups at such companies as Walt Disney (DIS) and SAP (SAP).
Backed with $5.2 million from venture-capital firms Mayfield and Redpoint Ventures, JotSpot has created wiki software that lets people assemble, Lego-style, basic components such as mailing lists and calendars. With JotSpot's wiki tools, users also can create applications that draw on the power of the Web. With a few keystrokes, data and services from other Web sites can be automatically tapped and deposited on the wiki.
For instance, a custom wiki program to track prospective customers could tap financial data from Hoover's, watch for stories from Yahoo! (YHOO), and search results from Google (GOOG), providing a quick picture of each customer's unique needs. The software also allows e-mails to a wiki page, which automatically organizes the information in the message.
POTENT COMPETITORS. With thousands of different programs out there, why build your own? Because a wide gulf remains between what traditional enterprise software does and the way people actually work, says Mayfield general partner Allen Morgan. Software from the likes of SAP (SAP), PeopleSoft (PSFT), and Siebel Systems (SEBL) to manage customers and corporate resources has a lot of bells and whistles, but is costly, complex, and inflexible.
These drawbacks oblige users to alter their work to fit the programs, discouraging their adoption. As a result, people often fall back on e-mail, which has its own problems, requiring endless exchanges, and which often strands valuable information inside in-boxes. "There's this in-between space that wikis can fill," says David Ornstein, lead program manager on Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows team and author of its own wiki software, FlexWiki.
Microsoft's interest in the technology is just one clue that JotSpot faces some potent competition. Users of wiki rivals such as Socialtext in Palo Alto, Calif., and the open-source program TWiki are already creating custom Web applications. And collaboration software, such as IBM's (IBM) Lotus Notes, Groove Networks' Virtual Office, and Microsoft's own SharePoint, could be tweaked to allow people to add customized programs. "There's nothing to prevent somebody else from doing this," says Peter O'Kelly, senior analyst with market researcher Burton Group of Midvale, Utah.
"THE WIKI WAY." Still, JotSpot has won some early fans. Opsware (OPSW), a Sunnyvale (Calif.) maker of software to manage corporate data centers, was using a Web form for customers to sign up for training. The forms piled in as e-mails, and administrators had to type all the details into a calendar. Now, a Web sign-up automatically goes to an Opsware training wiki, saving work and reducing errors. And the wiki automatically pulls in data on each customer from the Web, providing instant access to information that helps Opsware tailor training. "Information just flows a lot more quickly," says Opsware Chairman Marc L. Andreessen, co-founder of Web-browser pioneer Netscape.
JotSpot is betting on the Internet all the way. Instead of selling the software, it's offering its wiki as a hosted service on the Web, charging $5 per user per month during its current test phase. It's also hoping to hop on the open-source trend, encouraging outside programmers to sell applications in a Web gallery JotSpot will run.
Even rivals are encouraged by its high-profile debut, regardless of whether it succeeds. "It's a validation of the wiki way," says Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield -- one that may help usher in a new world of do-it-yourself software. Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau chief