A Web-Based App Builder With a Microsoft Twist
Now that the desktop revolution is largely over, most of the excitement lies in the counter-desktop revolution that is bringing all the flair developed by the desktop programmers back to the safe world of the server. Caspio is one of the most prominent players seeking to lure the desktop database builders away from Microsoft Access and back into the datacenter's fold. The company has been around since before the last bubble burst, and now it boasts a number of prominent companies as customers.
(Cogheadclicks for noncoders with a flexible XML database and drag-and-drop form builder. See Peter Wayner's review in InfoWorld's Test Center.)
Caspio's solution, called Caspio Bridge, is part of a wave of Web-based applications for building Web applications. Some, such as JotForm, WuFoo, FormAssembly, and their many cousins, promise to help automate the process of turning forms into tables and CSV files (see "Application builders in the sky"). Others, such as Coghead, want to help you develop an entire Web application. The line between them is getting quite blurry, but Caspio Bridge lies much closer to Coghead because it aspires to help you build full-fledged, database-driven Web applications.
As a programmer, I'm loath to call what Caspio and Coghead let you do as "not programming" because it includes much of the architectural forethought and experience that pays my rent. You do need to think about the structure of the data and make a number of other decisions that take up many of the early meetings during a programming project. Smart database design can make a difference. After that, though, using Caspio is just filling out metaforms that specify what other forms will look like.
Wizards and Widgets
Caspio won't help you build the coolest applications, but you can accomplish quite a bit without much effort. The meat of the process comes during a fairly complex wizard for designing Web forms. Each field in the data table can have a number of basic and advanced rules for converting it into a field on the form seen by the user.
Loaded and Locked In
The lock-in with Caspio can be brutal as it is with most similar tools. Once you build your application in Caspio, you can't really move it. This makes sense, given the business model, which charges nothing up front and a monthly fee afterward. You pay only if your application is successful, and eternal devotion to Caspio is the price.
The costs, though, aren't steep. Caspio encourages unlimited users and measures the sophistication of an application by counting the number of forms and the data stored in tables. By contrast, Coghead and WuFoo count the full-time users, although both are trying to tweak their model to avoid charging for users who visit only occasionally. Caspio avoids the distinction between full-time and casual users entirely.
What is truly surprising about Caspio is how much it feels like a Microsoft product. While there are many programming idioms common in Web applications, Caspio sidestepped most of them and built something that will look very familiar to Microsoft Access users. I did a double-take when I pushed the "edit" button for a page because Caspio took me back to the beginning of the page's configuration wizard. You may be working in a Web browser, but It's just like using Windows.
The underlying data structure will also be familiar to Microsoft SQL Server users; Caspio has SQL Server running underneath everything. SQL back ends are useful for programmers because they make it easier to link the system with other tools that expect to find an SQL database minding the information. The data ends up in a format that's comforting to the DBAs, and all of the unrelenting logic of SQL comes with it. I remember enjoying the fact that Coghead uses a more flexible XML database as the back end because it liberates you from creating a table for every single collection of items.
There are other ways that Caspio will be familiar to programmers and slightly confounding to the nonprogrammers. The look and feel for a data page is built out of CSS and a wizard. Pushing the "deploy" button assembles the parts in much the same way as pushing a "make" button. Other competitors do a better job of building WYSIWYG environments that let casual users plop down a field wherever they darn well please. As a programmer, I like Caspio's solution, but I suspect that the rest of the world may enjoy the WYSIWYG alternatives.
Bridge to Office
There are several other nice features that Microsoft users will appreciate. Microsoft Office applications can suck down data directly from Caspio using plug-ins. This tight integration lets you tweak the data to create charts and ad hoc reports on your desktop. It's not the same thing as a shell account, but it has some advantages for everyone. Caspio is also expanding the widget tools to make it easier to integrate your data tables with other sites.
The most promising market for Caspio will continue to be the casual programmer from a large Microsoft house. This set includes the people who aren't in the IT department per se, but who can do more with spreadsheets than just fill in rectangles. Many Excel users find they need to a way to make the Web site collect data or display it for the customers. Anyone with a good intuition for how computers work will be able to accomplish this, even if they don't have any formal programming training. The data can then be brought back down to Microsoft applications, where it can be massaged as needed.
Caspio Bridge can do more than just replace desktop databases -- it can also replace parts of Web sites. But that's life during the creative destruction era of Web 2.0. Caspio is a good, solid tool with a polish that will be welcome in many Microsoft houses.