Pipes dream

If you haven’t played around with Yahoo! Pipes, I highly recommend it. It’s a usable and useful service that brings web mashups to the masses, making this favorite hacker pastime as easy as dragging objects around on the screen.

For example, it took me probably about ten minutes as a first-time user to create a map mashup showing Barack Obama’s upcoming campaign stops. I “piped” the output of Washington Post’s RSS feed to a location-extractor module that identifies and geo-codes place names and renders them on a map. Here’s a screenshot of the output:

Screen shot of Yahoo! Pipe: Barack Obama 2008 US Presidential Election Campaign Travel Map

The easiest way to get started is to find an existing Pipe, clone it, and modify it as your own. Using this feature, I cloned my Obama map and in about one minute had a McCain map too.

Pipes uses a visual programming interface. The idea of “programming by picture” (I recall playing with one in the 1980s) never took hold as a mainstream tool. However, as a metaphor for mashups, where to goal is to chain together a number of sources and services, the visual approach seems exactly right. The implementation in a browser is a feat of ajaxian magic that I still find remarkable, even as Yahoo! and others are commoditizing the art. I imagine that even non-programmers should have little trouble constructing their own Pipes. Here is a screenshot of the source “code” for my Obama map:

Source code of Yahoo! Pipe: Barack Obama 2008 US Presidential Election Campaign Travel Map

Pipes has dozens of useful modules, including user input, Yahoo! Search, Flickr, and regular expressions.

You can embed the Pipe on your own website with a single line of javascript. I did this with my Obama and McCain campaign travel maps here. Or you can grab the output as an XML feed to use however you wish.

Pipes allows you to create human-readable URLs (e.g., http://pipes.yahoo.com/oddhead/obamatravelmap), a nice touch.

The icing on the cake for me is how Pipes — unlike so many other web sites, including some on Yahoo! — treats me and my Opera browser like adults:

Yahoo! Pipes treats me and my Opera browser like adults

(BTW, Pipes seems to work fine on Opera).

Unfortunately, Daniel Raffel, one of the key founders of Yahoo! Pipes, left Yahoo!. However, the team seems to be strong and continues to innovate, so I’m hopeful this fantastic service will continue to improve and thrive.