Hate Your Software? Write Your Own

JotSpot's wiki service lets the minimally tech-savvy create just what they need

If there's one thing technology does best, it's freeing the masses from the tyranny of experts. Word processors made us all our own 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 on eBay Inc.'s (EBAY ) global marketplace.

One job has remained the exclusive province of about 2 million tech wizards, however: writing software. As a result, software programs always seem 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 Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., introduced a Web service that it hopes will enable some 10 million minimally tech-savvy people -- those who know their way around a spreadsheet program -- to quickly write simple, customized Web programs for managing customer support, tracking job candidates, and the like. Think of it as do-it-yourself software. "Just as eBay empowers the part-time seller, we want to empower part-time programmers," says JotSpot Chief Executive Joe Kraus. "We've lowered the energy and skill level required to create an application."

How? JotSpot, founded by Kraus and Graham Spencer, two founders of the Web portal Excite (ASKJ ), is harnessing the power of Web software called wiki. Named after the Hawaiian word for "quick," wikis are collaborative Web sites. Users can create one in a snap and invite anyone else to edit it or add material. They've rapidly spread as quick-and-dirty online scratch pads among small corporate groups at companies such as Walt Disney (DIS ) and SAP (SAP ). But after they started to use wikis themselves, Kraus and Spencer quickly realized that the software could be much more: a foundation to create simple Web programs nearly as easily as it is to create wiki Web sites themselves.

FILLING A GAP

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 forms such as mailing lists and calendars. With JotSpot's wiki tools, people can also create their own 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 keep track of prospective customers could tap financial data from Hoover's, stories from Yahoo! (YHOO ) News, and search results from Google (GOOG ), providing a quick picture of each customer's needs. The software also lets people send e-mails to a wiki page, which will automatically organize the information in the message.

Still, with thousands of different programs out there, why would anyone need more? Because a wide gulf remains between what traditional enterprise software does and the way people actually work, notes Mayfield managing director Allen Morgan. Software from the likes of SAP, PeopleSoft (PSFT ), and Siebel Systems (SEBL ) to manage customers and corporate resources has a lot of bells and whistles, but it can be costly, complex, and inflexible. Users often must alter their work to fit the programs, which discourages many from using them. As a result, people often fall back on e-mail, which has its own problems: It requires endless exchanges and strands valuable information inside inboxes. "There's this in-between space that wikis can fill," says David Ornstein, a lead program manager on Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) Windows team and author of its own wiki software, FlexWiki.

Microsoft's presence is just one clue that JotSpot faces some potent competition. Users of wiki rivals such as Socialtext Inc. in Palo Alto 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, a senior analyst at market researcher Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.

Still, JotSpot has won some early fans. Opsware Inc. (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 Communications Corp.

JotSpot is betting on the Web all the way. Instead of selling the software, it's offering it 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. Whether or not JotSpot itself succeeds, even rivals are encouraged by its high-profile debut. "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.

By Robert D. Hof in Palo Alto, Calif.

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