zembly Provides Social Context for Web Development

Guest blogger Jesper Andersen is a former software architect who currently provides entrepreneurial consulting services for startups. He co-founded Ignite Chicago.

The future of application development might be becoming a little more social. Sun certainly hopes so, and has launched zembly, a new collaboration platform for writing small, and lightweight web applications. It’s a promising start, squarely aimed at small, long-tail developers, and a new approach to collaborative development over the web. Challenges remain, such as the long-term reliability of third-party application hosting and the findability of small long-tail applications on large platforms.
I was able to demo zembly, which attempts to lower the barrier of entry to writing applications for social platforms such as Facebook, Meebo, OpenSocial and the iPhone by sharing services and widgets – and came away impressed with its focus on ease-of-use and belief in a new development process.  zembly is working to create a social setting for developers to share components between applications – a “wiki for live, editable code that is more than just about trivial widgets, but rather about full-fledged social applications that can tap into the social graph and reach millions of users”.
Applications are written in javascript, rely on a widget / web service development model, and have an extensive architecture for securely managing developer credentials so that you can share outbound service calls without sharing your credentials.  These widgets and services can be shared, or cloned (forked) from other developers and carry a full change log with them, so you can freeze your dependencies to a given version.  The system makes source control and component sharing simpler for the uninitiated than tools like Git and Subversion that can be difficult to learn.
zembly hopes that network effects will kick in, as the service will be most successful if users trust others on the system, and share components freely – something that has been hard to accomplish even in large corporate development teams.  If successful, it will be this feature that distinguishes zembly from Google App Engine and other competitors.

However, all this centralization comes with a cost – a service developers have come to rely could disappear. These fears are allayed somewhat by the fact that zembly is hosted on Sun’s own network.com computational grid, but it would be nice to see an open source approach, or a mechanism that would produce a complete runtime for your application that you could run on your own servers. zembly is looking into both of these options (but no word on how to handle moving your application from a zembly hosted *.zembly.com url to your own domain name yet). As has been noted before in discussing the now defunct zimki, these concerns are real and need to be addressed so that developers can have confidence that they can migrate their applications to another solution if a vendor drops the service that hosts them.

Another potential concern for zembly’s target market of long-tail application developers is helping make applications more discoverable. The market for social applications hasn’t yet developed far enough to organically support long tail applications, and the platforms providers aren’t bridging the gap yet. Because zembly is designed for developers of long-tail social applications, and, as others have noted, the long tail of social applications isn’t a vibrant place to be yet (the O’Reilly Facebook report shows that over 90% of Facebook applications have no activity), it will be hard for these applications to rely on viral growth for installations in popular social networking platforms. Interested users will have to discover these applications on their own. This is a problem that Facebook and other platforms haven’t been very good at solving – hits are the only applications that matter the social application market. In lieu of platform support for application findabililty, zembly will have to provide users with a simple service for finding new applications – a daunting task – even with the cooperation of social platform vendors.

Despite these concerns, as someone who sometimes needs a little peer pressure and social support to get started on development projects, I’ll be following zembly as they build out their community-oriented features and work to deliver on their promise to wiki-fy web development, and I’ll be looking forward to sharing code with friends online.

The service is currently in limited private beta but should be opening up to the public soon.