The ideal start page for web work would let you see the status of your workday at a glance–what emails have come in, what’s on your to do list, what articles from RSS feeds you need to read, what your contacts are up to, and what’s on your calendar.
The ideal start page would show all this in an integrated and information-rich way such that even graphical guru Edward Tufte couldn’t criticize it.
The ideal start page would let you act immediately. You could shoot out an email, send an instant message, or update your twitter account (“looking at my Ajax start page”) right from the start page itself, instead of navigating elsewhere.
Does the current generation of web-based start pages (a.k.a. personalized home pages) come at all close to ideal? Let’s review five of them–four Ajax and one Flash–and see.
You’d think that Google’s start page would be a great choice for dedicated users of Google services like Gmail and Docs and Spreadsheets. But the Google home page integration with its own services is mostly inadequate.
You can’t send an email through Gmail right from the start page. You can look at a list of your Google Docs & Spreadsheets, but you can’t see a preview of individual documents right there. The Google Calendar module is nice, with its list-based agenda view and quick add capability. The Google Notebook module enables two-way integration and editing, but a bug kept me from adding new notebooks.
Google’s offering isn’t integrated with Google Reader in even the most minimal way. From an RSS feed in the home page, you should be able to click into Google Reader, where you could star or share articles. Instead, clicking an article link takes you to the original article. Since RSS feeds are the key way of displaying data in a start page, this lack of integration is a near-fatal flaw for the Google start page.
The most precious real estate at the top of the page is dominated by the Google logo and search box. That could easily be relegated to just another rectangle on the grid of modules. The use of a large typeface for both headings and content means that information density is low–check out the difference between typeface size on Google Reader versus Google personalized home page–you get much more information in Reader.
Pro: Nice integration with Google Calendar. Clean and uncluttered interface similar in feeling to Gmail and Google Reader. Lots of modules to choose from–hard to tell exactly how many as there’s no count given in Google’s Homepage Content Directory.
Con: Minimal integration with Google apps and services: no integration with Google Reader, no Google Talk module, and no way to send an email through Gmail right from the page. No keyboard shortcuts. Poor use of screen real estate and low density of information. No summary statistics showing number of unread articles from various feeds.
This Ajax-based start page excels with its integrated feed reading capabilities. Netvibes is one of the favorite feed readers of WWD readers, second only to Google Reader in our hit counts. When you click through on an RSS item on Netvibes, you go directly to the feed reading view, which provides a powerful interface for browsing all the items in the feed.
Unlike Google’s personalized home page, Netvibes provides a dense view of information, with a relatively small typeface and more reasonable allocation of screen real estate. Unfortunately, you can’t eliminate the page tabs even if you only have one page and the title of your page takes up too much space at the top.
Netvibes’ modules don’t always behave as you might want. The POP3 mail module shows a count of items in your inbox but provides no way to mark items as read. The red number indicating “unread items” is therefore inaccurate and worse, it sums up into the overall unread items statistic at the top of the page. That’d be a nice touch if only it could be believed. Instead, it just becomes noise for the brain.
Netvibes has been successful in creating a dynamic ecosystem of add-on modules. One look at their ecosystem home page and you know they’re serious about growing a developer community–that page is as nicely designed as the start page itself. Mashup service provider Dapper even provides a way to make non-syndicated content into a Netvibes module by doing basic HTML screen scraping.
Pro: Excellent integration of power feed reading capabilities with an information-rich start page display. Thriving ecosystem of module developers. Well funded, which matters for its longevity. Offers keyboard shortcuts, but you need to turn them on if you want to use them.
Con: The POP mail module is virtually unusable with its inability to mark items as read. Showing a total of unread items at the top based on inaccurate numbers in the mail modules is just pure noise to the brain. Needs a quick email send capability. The feed reader itself isn’t as information-dense or as easy to navigate by keyboard as Google Reader.
Pageflakes may become an also-ran relative to Netvibes, though it did garner the reader’s choice in Mashable’s vote on start pages. It has one very nice feature lacking in Netvibes: a quick email send capability.
Pageflakes hasn’t attracted as many developers as Netvibes: it shows 136 “flakes” in its gallery compared to the 563 modules listed for Netvibes.
The interface of Pageflakes is information-dense and attractive, and uses screen real estate well. The logo, page tabs, and navigation at the top of the page take only a small amount of space. The typeface is suitably small.
RSS feed flakes show accurate unread item counts, but offer no easy way to mark items read without browsing them. However, clicking through on an RSS item opens it in a preview-style subpage trapped within the confines of the Pageflakes homepage… this may not be everyone’s favorite way to browse.
There is no integration with powerful feed-reading capabilities.
Correction: Pageflakes does include a dedicated feed reader. To use it, you open the options for an individual feed flake and set that flake to open posts in the RSS reader.
Pro: Email compose/send capability. Nice use of screen real estate. Attractive interface with accurate read/unread item counts for mail and RSS feeds.
Con: No integrated advanced feed reading as with a dedicated news reader. Difficult browsing of feed items. Module development community appears less active than that of Netvibes.
With the rounded corners on its widgets and configurable color schemes, Protopage feels almost like a Flash-based service, although it is built with Ajax. Protopage’s Widget Showcase shows 275 widgets.
Protopage uses screen real estate efficiently, although the default configuration with seven tabs feels too cluttered. The tabs’ operation can be confusing.
Protopage V3, released in November of 2006, introduced an integrated RSS feed reading capability for feeds that publish only excerpts. This works similarly to Pageflakes feed reading, in that it displays the original page in a contained display.
Pro: Integrated feed reading for feeds that only publish excerpts. A rich gallery of widgets. Fully customizable color schemes.
Con: The rounded corners on the widgets feel dated–this is a web app, not a desktop dashboard–and they take up more space than necessary. The integrated feed reader may be too limited for people who read large numbers of feeds.
This Flash-based entrant grew out of the goowy webtop, a virtual web suite that includes email, integrated IM, and calendaring. It’s a bit confusing–I started out trying “goowy minis” and was surprised when I couldn’t add any email “minis” (modules) to the page. You have to go to yourminis.com for the next-generation dashboard.
yourminis has a Flashy look to it, with lots of icons, fades, and rounded corners on the minis. Sure, you can do that with Ajax, but most start pages don’t bother. Some of the minis use nonstandard and nonconfigurable typefaces; you can’t change the to do list or notepad from its default casual font. The animations are distracting: my yourminis page had a flashing clock and pulsing icons at the top and bottom.
The RSS feed mini can be difficult to use. It shows which items have been read–meaning you’ve clicked through on it or marked all items in that feed as read–but I couldn’t seem to mark something as read individually without clicking through. You can configure how long of an excerpt to view, but you can’t see an entire article right there, which might be nice.
Pro: Polished desktop-like look and feel. Nice text editor mini.
Con: The colors and graphic effects draw attention away from what’s really important: the information on the page. Though yourminis is intended to be an open platform, it doesn’t appear to have attracted as much attention from developers as the Ajax-based start pages.
We’re Not There Yet
What did this review of Ajax start pages (and one Flash start page) tell us? That they have a ways to go before they provide the informational richness and immediate action that this web worker needs.
For now, my web start page is Firefox with one tab for email, one for my calendar, and one for my RSS reader. What’s yours?