You used to have to be a programmer just to use computers at all. Graphical user interfaces changed all that. But what if you want to build software? Increasingly, you don't have to be a coder to do that, either. A new web app called Kimono promises to "turn websites into structured APIs from your browser in seconds." Sound like Klingon to you? Me too—until I watched their demo video (especially the last 15 seconds):
In nontechnical terms, Kimono lets you snap off pieces of existing websites, throw them into a bucket, and recombine them at your pleasure. Here's an example. When I lived in New York, I had an idea for a web app that would tell me whether it was worthwhile to leave my apartment on Sunday mornings to buy the New York Times. It would do two simple things with one click: tell me the current weather and display the headline of that week's Times Magazine cover story. If the cover story looked good and the weather wasn't nasty, I could shuffle my lazy butt down to the bodega and buy a copy.
Grabbing these two pieces of information from the web and displaying them together seemed simple enough. But for a non-coder like me, it wasn't—I had no simple tool to "grab" the information with. That's what Kimono is. I just activated the Kimono toolbar in my browser, went to NYTimes.com and Weather.com, clicked on the portions of each site that I wanted to grab, and used Kimono's app builder to whip up in five minutes what I wish I had two years ago in Brooklyn. No, really: here it is.
Yes, it's super primitive: partly because Kimono's app builder isn't fully featured yet, and partly because I still don't really know what I'm doing. Still, it's a software sketch that more or less does what I wanted it to—which was more than I could do before. What I really did was create two custom APIs—one to scrape the Times Magazine headlines, another to grab real-time weather info for my old neighborhood—without leaving my browser and without writing any code. Those APIs are very flexible if you know what to do with them. If I did have rudimentary coding skills, I could use those APIs to make a "Should I buy the Sunday Times?" app that wasn't primitive or sketch-like at all. For instance, here are some impressive apps and data visualizations that people built on top of an API that Kimono conjured up for the Sochi Olympics.
"We asked ourselves, if getting access to structured data from around the web is so interesting to us, why wouldn't it be interesting to everyone else, even people who can't code?" says Ryan Rowe, co-founder (with Pratap Ranade) of Kimono. "The design of the site and the direct simplicity of the interactions are directed squarely at this broader, technically minded—not necessarily technically skilled—audience."
Rowe and Ranade designed Kimono to be both unobtrusive and visually direct. "Dark overlays with bright colors stand out against all the noise on your average web page, while not getting in the way of what's already there," Rowe explains. "People also like tangible, direct actions. What's more direct than clicking on the data that you want? This manifests itself in little things as well, like the colored highlights that appear after you select something and animate into their organized positions."
Kimono is a rare technical tool that's surprisingly unintimidating to non-coders while still offering powerful functionality for skilled developers. Rowe and Ranade hope to expand it into "a data-driven version of Squarespace for apps." I can't wait.