Application builders in the sky

Do-it-yourself online tools are quickly moving beyond the creation of forms and spreadsheets to database-driven Web apps

The power of Web-based applications continues to burgeon as they take on the art of application building itself. In a number of online tools, the old compile-link-deploy loop disappears, and editing a Web application becomes as simple as editing a comment for Slashdot. (Notice I used the word "edit," not "program.") Just click a few times in the browser and your application is up and running.

This trend has been unfolding for several years. First, the vendors tried letting you build your own forms with AJAX drag-and-drop tools. Then they let you add a bit more scripting to the widgets. After a few iterations, the products aren't much different from a full-fledged tool built out of Java, PHP, or Perl.

Today, the tools available let you build something that required a team of Java experts just a few years ago. They range from the simple form construction mechanisms from sites like Wufoo to more sophisticated sites, such as Coghead (see the review of Coghead), that build full applications. Even online office applications sites like Zoho are growing pretty close to offering most of what you need to build a full database-driven Web site. There are even some interesting sites like AppJet that let you program in good old ASCII while using a Web engine. All of these are converging on the familiar Web application built around a database.

All of these tools specialize in managing the tables and tables of information that are routinely dispatched to relational databases. These are the lifeblood of businesses, and it's no surprise that there are a number of approaches to corralling this data.

Forms over function

The simplest tools don't do much, but they can accomplish much of what traditional Web sites do. If you want a number of people to fill out their particular row of a database, nothing could be simpler than JotForm, FormAssembly, or Wufoo. You drag and drop fields onto a page until you've got all of the questions arranged in a way that won't annoy the end-user too much. Then you push a button, send out e-mails, hope the people won't ignore the request, and collect the data in a collated file.

Wufoo is the slickest of these three -- if you like the multicolored cacophony so common in Web 2.0 applications. The company brags that Jakob Nielsen, the design guru, chose Wufoo as one of the best user interfaces of 2008. The system is easy to use, and I found only a few holes when I tried to confound the form validation routines with arcane URLs.

The vendors compete boffering additional features to make their forms more sophisticated. FormAssembly, for instance, now lets you add CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) protection that forces the user to prove they're not out to get Sarah Connor by reading some oddly tangled mess of words. It also has a nice collection of CSS style sheets for dressing up the forms in the Form Garden. All are distributed under Creative Commons licenses.

Payment integration is one of the neater aspects of all three of these tools. JotForm, for instance, supports six different payment mechanisms, including PayPal, Google Checkout, and ClickBank. Once someone fills out a form, they are forwarded to the payment gateway. The money received shows up in the same table as the information from the form. This is a simple way to take prepayment for events.

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Peter Wayner

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