I haven’t heard back from Yahoo about their intent with Pipes so I’ll assume they’re just screwing around and having fun (which I guess is a somewhat valid statement about Yahoo as a whole – can Semel close the door after him when he leaves?). To see applications that actually show some business potential, read From Web 2.0 to Work 2.0 and look at this RSSBus+Proto demo.
The problem with business mashups is to find data sources that are clean and specific enough. We manage lead generation in SFDC (did I mention how much I love Salesforce.com since we started using it six months ago?) and use data from sources such as Hoover’s, LinkedIn or Google queries, but that stuff is too unstructured or imprecise to support automation. Short of human oversight, you’ll often end up with Garbage In Garbage Out. Garbage leads means your reps will ignore your SFA and you don’t want that. So we have custom links in SFDC that pop up queries from various sources, and the rest is grunt work.
Proto’s expense demo works because the data is already structured and it’s part of any corporate workflow to tag and review expenses one entry at a time (aka “stop entertaining your girlfriends at the company’s expense”). Expense management was one of the first applications on the intranets emerging a decade ago. I’d like to set up mashups based on things like keyword density to support editorial workflow or competitive research, but so far I haven’t seen very convincing tools so far. From an automation perspective, screen-scraping is not going away anytime soon, and again, there’s only so much you can automate without actual AI semantic understanding.
Here’s something that business web app providers should do that would be a boon right here right now: enable web queries directly from Excel as opposed to forcing users to do time-consuming manual export jobs. Excel has been a hybrid web/desktop client for years but we’re still stuck downloading CSV files which, if you think about it, is a pretty sad thing to do in this day and age. I have to spend way too much time shuffling and massaging data around to get the information I need.
A broader point is that relying solely on browser-based authentication to grant access to online apps is a huge lock-in. It’s shutting out desktop apps that don’t know how to navigate within HTML interfaces to get to the data, just like it’s shutting out, say, WiFi phones from making Skype calls from the local Starbucks. I’m all for paid online services, but please don’t serve them within a web ghetto.