Top Ajax Start Pages Reviewed

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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.

Google’s Personalized Home Page

Google’s personalized home pageYou’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.

Netvibes

NetvibesThis 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

PageflakesPageflakes 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.

Protopage

ProtopageWith 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.

yourminis

yourminisThis 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?

61 Comments

Camaracut

Great and fair review!
Protopage is definitely the one for me!

chris

I agree, these start pages are not ready yet.

FireFox is also my start page. I have buttons for Bloglines, the weather, and GMail.

Mary Deaton

You are correct; we are not there, yet. I have tried to use my Google homepage with multiple tabs to keep everything organized and in one place. It works okay, but my problem is not all of the Web-based tools I use have a feed. I have considered using FireFox tabs, especially now that you can have permanent tabs, but I find I have so many tabs – one for each item – that is becomes clunky to move around.

I may go look at Windows Live, especially if it offers some of the functions in SharePoint. An early Office Live beta had Sharepoint functions, but they had a poor visual design and was aimed at small business, not web workers who work at home, but do lots of collaboration across the Web.

Daniel

Thanks for this great review of Ajax start up pages. I’m learning how to use Ajax right now, and this review is very helpful. As far as start up pages, well, I start with my blog first and just go through my blogroll.

Kris Tuttle

I use the Google page with tabs for the different areas I pay attention to. Since my email client is Thunderbird and my IM/VoIP is Skype I have several windows and a few flatscreens on my desk anyway. I find the Google solution to work well and while I hit the others to see what they are like none deserve the time and effort needed to really switch. Most of my clients will never use an RSS reader but the customized home page is within their grasp.

The Rooster

You forgot Webwag disappointing as Webwag is a real contender and has as many features as the ones mentioned. I would have put it in the “Top” category and worthy of mention.

It is much of the same and yet different, I have found people like one over the other for no specific reason and it just comes down to personal preference. So for that reason it should have been in your list.

scott

Anne – Good post. I did a similar one back in March 2006. also , FYI with Netvibes you can get rid of the page title in settings to free up more space.

Christoph Janz

Anne, you’re right, we have one little GMail Flake which is basically just a notifier of incoming GMail emails, and then there’s the more powerful Mail Flake which lets you send and receive emails with any POP3 account.

The names are probably a bit confusing. Good point. :)

Anonymous

Google because they were first with mobile support. I have tons of feeds and I’m not willing to take the time to transfer them to another service unless something’s completely mindblowing with the service.

Deepak

Anne,

You asked about the customized Google Coop searches.

These are searches that I find useful. An example is a search for computational biology and bioinformatics related information from my favorite resources (ones that I trust). That particular one is on my blog as well. On the fun side I have a search that only searches my favorite tech blogs (like this one).

Anne Zelenka

Christoph – the first flake I added for gmail only gave me read access, not the compose capability. But I tried adding it again and now I can compose and send mail. I guess I used the wrong flake initially.

The first flake was called “gmail” the second just “mail.” I did it a while ago so I don’t remember, but I think I must have searched specifically for a gmail flake and maybe bypassed your generic mail flake that would have given me what I was looking for.

Thanks for the tips.

Christoph Janz

Thanks very much for correcting this so quickly, Anne! Good idea about letting users open posts in Google Reader….we’ll look into this.

Regarding GMail, you can already send and receive your GMail email on Pageflakes. :-) Did you encounter a problem when you tried logging into your GMail account using the Mail Flake?

hyperreality

Interesting comparison! I’ve tried Protopage, Pageflakes, google’s personalised homepage and Netvibes; and out of all four, I prefer Netvibes! In fact, my browser (Firefox) opens with google reader and Netvibes every morning!
I’ve set up Netvibes with feeds from Digg and Newsvine, a couple of nice tags from Flickr and a todo/notepad. And as Anne said, ONE tab only! This page is meant for me to skim through every now and then not browse through!

Anne Zelenka

Christoph – thanks for the correction; I’ve updated my article to reflect that Pageflakes does have power feed reading capabilities.

It is a very nice-looking feed reader. What I’d love is the option to open posts in Google Reader, which is my reader of choice.

If Pageflakes let me use gmail to send my mail (I think it should, because Gmail offers pop access) and had Google Reader integration, I might actually use it. It’s quite nice looking and fits lots of info in a small space.

Christoph Janz

Great review, Anne. I just wanted to add that Pageflakes does have a dedicated RSS Reader, arguably even the best one of all startpages. :-) (Check out the Outlook View and the Newspaper View!)

To try it, just click on the little spanner icon of any RSS module and select “open posts in RSS Reader”. We disabled the RSS Reader as the default because many users told us that they prefer reading blog postings on the original blog site.

Anne Zelenka

Alex – that’s interesting–there has been a ton of attention given to building a developer community for widget systems and less so towards developing a devoted user community.

Hope your release goes well.

alex

With yourminis you can publish pages into a youtube like community where other people can view your tabs, rate them, add comments and add them to their own internal tabs. This is something the other start pages have not focused as much on – that being the external expression aspect.

In addition in the next 2 weeks we are releasing the ability to take any of the minis outside of the yourminis platform and add them to your personal pages, blogs, myspace, etc.

Trent

Look into Bubbles. It allows you to tie any browser-based site into the windows tray. I keep SlimTimer, Meebo and Pandora in there, but you can include Gmail and Google Calendar or anything other web site. Keeps the task bar nice and clean.

An added help is using Taskbar Shuffle, which allows you to reorder items in the task bar.

Anne Zelenka

One thing that bugs me a bit about all the start pages is that they assume you want multiple tabs. If you only have one tab, you shouldn’t have to devote any screen real estate to the tabs themselves, but I didn’t find that any of them could turn tabs off. I have Firefox tabs–I don’t need start page tabs too.

I am watching Google’s offering closely since I’m devoted to all there other apps. If they could integrate it with Reader, that’d be awesome.

@JBS: I tried Microsoft Live, wanting to review it, but couldn’t–for some reason I couldn’t search their gadget gallery. Don’t know if that’s because I’m using Firefox on OS X. Good point about formatting on the mobile phone–that’s important. ‘

@Sal: I’m not familiar with about:blank… when I searched on it, it said it’s adware/spyware?

@Deepak: I’ll have to check out Google coop. What kind of searches do you find are important to have on your home page? Just curious.

@Audrey: maybe someday you and I can start a company to make a decent start page. I really like how Google Reader figures out what to put on my home page. Is it doing more than just sticking up infrequently-updated feeds? Or does it notice what we read and don’t read?

Audrey

I go with the multiple Firefox tabs too (Gmail, Google Reader, Basecamp, Stikkit), but I keep thinking about coding my own start page, so I can get more of the information I track on the same screen. Google Reader does a decent job of learning which feeds to put on the main page when they update, but I want a little more flexibility with the whole setup, and the ability to pull in information from accounts that require authentication.

Deepak

Firefox tabs although with Google Personalized home page, I use less tabs than before. I have 4 custom searches from google coop there, google reader, calendar, gmail (I agree that ability to send email would be nice), docs, notes, my portfolio and a bunch of other things.

Sal Cangeloso

Out of the bunch I like netvibes the most. I would really like to start using about:blank just to cut down on clutter, but I don’t know if it’s worth it when such great start pages are available

Rex Dixon

Firefox tabs – but I still have yourminis as a starting point. From there, the e-mail and everything else goes out into tabs.

Rex

jbs

If you’re not an MSFT hater, you might try live.com. It has some pretty nifty gadgets and has a very open-ended way to add RSS feeds. It also formats very nicely on my mobile phone.

Ben Toth

Like you I’ve tried pretty much all of them but returned time and again to tabbed Firefox, One particular problem has been trying to integrate Google docs. I just can’t get the Pageflake (or was it Netvibes?) widgets to see my account.

Hashim

I use Google’s Personalized Home Page because if a service plans to lock me in like all of these start pages do, then I’d rather it be with Google.

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