Assemble the Social Web with Zembly

Web applications are all the rage. Web applications that function within the context of social networking sites doubly so. I think it is safe to say that pretty much anyone looking to garner a large audience on the web, for financial or any other reasons, has to be considering how they can reach people on sites like Facebook, or all those users out there accessing the web via their iPhones. Sun Microsystems has entered this arena by providing a set of web based development tools and a platform on which to host the resulting products that is now in beta and named Zembly. And while Zembly has not been open to the public for all that long, two of Zemblys architects with the help of two writers have published a new cookbook for the aspiring Zembly developer, Assemble the Social Web with Zembly.

Zembly is relatively new and the name doesn’t offer any insight into just what it is, so before I get to the book itself, I’ll explain a little about just what Zembly is. It is a Sun project. In their promotional material on the site they claim, “Over two decades ago, Sun’s motto, ‘The Network is the Computer’, foreshadowed the advent of today’s cloud computing movement.We like to say that zembly is the development environment for Sun’s bold vision…” So Zembly is an on-line development environment. But more than just being an on-line editor, it is development in a social context aimed at social tools. The code written by one Zembly user, is available to any other user.

Along with providing a social development environment, Zembly also provides the platform and resources where the applications developed there will live. To put it in literal terms the framework is comprised of Solaris, Java, Glassfish, and MySQL. It operates via Sun’s cloud-computing business. That framework supports the use of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, FBML, and FBJS. There are templates in place to develop applications for several popular social networking sites and there will be more as users add them.

Assemble the Social Web with Zembly is an introduction to all this and serves primarily as a cookbook to help the reader get their head around how all the pieces work together, giving them a jump start into the process. As Zembly is all about colaberation it seems appropriate that this book is the product of four authors. Gail Anderson and Paul Anderson are experience authors, with a number of published tech books between them. Todd Fast is the architect and CTO of Zembly. Chris Webster is another Sun employee and the Technical lead for Zembly and also a published author himself.

The book covers an overview of Zembly, a chapter on how to use the tool set and then moves through a series of chapters that provide examples of building widgets and services for Flickr, Zillow, Facebook, Dapper, and web apps for the iPhone. There is also a widget section that makes use of WeatherBug, Google Maps and Yahoo! Pipes. The results can be published as applications within those sites or embedded into other sites. I see the real potential for Zembly in places like Dapper and Pipes, where Zembly becomes an endpoint for those types of services that can consume almost anything. The usefulness of Zembly comes in allowing to integrate that into the social sites and the scaleable hosting is already built right in.

The book is well organized and black & white illustrations are put to good use in making directions clear. The index is thorough. The authors do not assume a lot of prior knowledge on the part of the reader in regard to how the various social networks operate. This did mean at times I had to plow explanations of things that really didn’t have anything to do with Zembly. The information on what Facebook applications are and what they do is a good example. This was a little annoying but fortunately these sections were short. I found the writing to be clear and to the point. The authors do not try to be hip or cool and focus on content.

To really get the most out of the book a reader should be familiar with JavaScript, html and css. It wouldn’t hurt to also understand RESTful web services. Once the first two chapters explaining Zembly are over, this really is a cook-book, or set of examples/tutorials rather than instruction on how to code or do markup. The experienced developer could probably slide by even if they were not working regularly with these technologies. Someone who has never written a bit of code may want to spend some time building some familiarity with javascript before they tack this book. Zembly itself has some quick tutorials that require almost no knowledge of programming. I watched a graphic art guy at work throw together a facebook widget/app in about 10 minutes using Zembly.

Zembly is still in what has become the ubiquitous beta state for on-line applications. And as it is under active development this book probably has a very short shelf-life. It wont be all that long before the platform moves along and leaves it behind. In an effort to shore up against that inevitability all the code and resources for the book are stored in Zembly. If changes are made today, tomorrows reader will be able to work with the updated structures. The book itself is also available in traditonal ebook formats and through Safari.

One of the nicer things about the Zembly approach is that it removes the barrier of hosting costs to participate in this space. In turn the developer surrenders up their work to be used by others. This may be problematic for those who would rather keep all their code to themselves, but fits in-line nicely with the fact that the entire stack is built on FOSS products. Of course, once again the beta status means that this free ride is not something that is guaranteed for perpetuity. I’m guessing that at some point, this type of central hosting is going to necessitate an attempt by Sun to generate some income from the service.

Getting in on the front end of a technology can often be rather difficult. The Sun folks seem to be ahead of the curve on making it easier for people to participate with Zembly. There are excellent tutorials and documentation on the site itself. For those who want to take it a step further, there is this book with a wealth of examples and explanations that will really accelerate the learning process. I’m not sure if Zembly will become the next big thing or not, but anyone who wants to gamble that it will, here is a chance to make the most of the ride.

Title: Assemble the Social Web with Zembly
Author: Gail Anderson and Paul Anderson with Todd Fast and Chris Webster
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Pages: 385
ISBN: 978-0-13-714431-0
Rating: 8/10
Tagline: Let’s Make a Social Application. Right Here. Right Now. Together.

Posted under JavaScript, NonFiction, Programming, Social, Web Tags: , ,

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