Technology

Building a Business on a Mashup


These combos of disparate programs or Web applications are in the hobbyist phase, but entrepreneurs are seeking to turn them into moneymakers

Meet Tim Hibbard. It's 11:45 p.m. on a Wednesday night and Hibbard is currently near the intersection of Jacob and Ranch Streets in Lawrence, Kan. It's a cool 50 degrees outside. He's not moving around now, but he's traveled a total of 28.42 miles today. And no, I'm not stalking him.

Conveniently for Hibbard's would-be stalkers, though, he carries his cell phone with him at all times and he's decided to let the global positioning system on his phone constantly broadcast his whereabouts to his Web site.

Hibbard has mashed his location information onto a Google (GOOG) map, along with other information, such as the speed at which he is traveling. That information gets updated every 30 seconds, so his family and friends pretty much always know where he is and can send him a text message by clicking on the map. They can also tell how cold it is in his neck of the woods because Hibbard has mashed in information from a live weather network called WeatherBug.

Marketing Mashup

The fact that Hibbard's site offers driving directions to his location at every moment of his day might lead a casual observer to wonder if he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. But that doesn't seem to be the case. He is a software architect at a small company called EnGraph in Lawrence, Kan. EnGraph sells GPS tracking software to organizations with fleets of vehicles. In August, 2005, Hibbard bought a new GPS device and decided to experiment with putting the data on Google Maps. "The initial project took about an hour," he says. Over the past year, Hibbard has added more features and the site has become a marketing tool for EnGraph. "It's led to a lot of interest in projects," he says. He's even sold a version of his mashup to a company in Rhode Island.

Remarkably, this page on Hibbard's site is the fourth most popular mashup of all time (5,552 visitors), according to ProgrammableWeb.com, a Web site that catalogs mashups. Of course, "of all time" is a relative term. Web mashups only came into being in early 2005 when Paul Rademacher created HousingMaps.com, a combination of Google Maps with real estate listings from Craigslist. Today, ProgrammableWeb.com lists 1,189 mashups but that's only a fraction of the mashups out there, says John Musser, founder of ProgrammableWeb.com. On average about 2.84 new mashups get added to Musser's site each day. "This fall, there's been a big uptick," says Musser, adding, "The trend from where I sit seems to be accelerating."

The Frucall Idea

What remains to be seen, however, is if any of these mashups will morph beyond the hobbyist, gee-ma-look-what-I-can-do realm into actual, revenue-producing businesses. A few entrepreneurs are trying, though. On Oct. 16, a company called Frucall began offering an early version of its free service that helps consumers decide whether they're going to get the best deal in a store or online.

When shoppers find a product in a store, they simply call a toll-free phone number and enter in the bar code information from the product. Frucall wades through hundreds of thousands of shops online to find the best deal on that product. "The beauty about Frucall is that while it's very easy to use, the back-end systems are relatively sophisticated," says Behzad Nadji, chief executive officer of Frucall. Those back-end systems mash together telephony capabilities with a variety of online shopping comparison sites.

Unlike Hibbard's mashup, which uses freely available software from Google Maps and others, Nadji has signed deals with shopping aggregators defining how Frucall will use those sites. This is important because Frucall needs to be certain those connections will be available and working so that customers won't experience glitches. In return for the free service, Frucall will ask consumers to listen to short advertising snippets while they're waiting for the system to retrieve the pricing information. Nadji also expects to collect a commission on sales made through Frucall from the vendors.

Still, Frucall has a way to go before it matches the popularity of Hibbard's site. Frucall currently ranks 350th on the list of most popular mashups at ProgrammableWeb.com (302 visitors).

As for Hibbard, he plans to add some fun features to his mashup, like geographically coded photos from Flickr (YHOO). After visitors get the aerial view of his location from Google Earth, they'll be able to click on photos that others have taken of that particular place.

Is Hibbard at least a little worried about his privacy? "I could be concerned about privacy, but I'm not," he says. "I think that one day GPS will help everybody and for real-time GPS to hit the market, we have to get over the privacy implications and the fear that the data will be abused." Hibbard says the software he uses allows him a modicum of control. He can block a specific person from looking at it or he can turn it off if he's being tracked. So far, he's had no problems. He says, "Nobody cares what I do—I drive from home to work and I go home again."

King is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in San Francisco.

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