Some time in early November, Pageflakes went down, and it hasn’t come back yet. Pageflakes is a free web “start page” service. It let’s one aggregate a variety of web resources, especially dynamic feeds of information from other sites, onto single pages, by way of widgets. It also provided special functions that other similar services didn’t, like mini-blogs, message boards, and so on. I had come to depend on Pageflakes to present materials I found on the web, bringing together the sundry other tools I use to track useful information, including the blogroll in the sidebar of this page you’re reading now. Now I have to begin again.
Because of my work, and my belief that information and knowledge should be shared as widely as possible, I collect web news and blog posts into RSS streams that anyone can follow. Maybe you’d like to do this too; maybe you just want to “follow” my feeds. In any case, here’s what I do and how I do it.
While I listen to CBC in the car and thereby get pretty much all the typical news I need, I do like to keep up on developments in various fields too. That’s where the web comes in.
I use Google Reader. There may be glitzier readers out there, but none can do the very simple thing of composing RSS feeds of articles I’ve tagged and shared. Google does an excellent job of explaining how sharing works in Reader; I won’t duplicate that here. Basically, this lets me build my own “custom” feeds out of other, existent feeds. I guess that makes it a kind of mashup.
Even though Pageflakes is a little clumsier, it has functionality that Netvibes doesn’t.
There’s a category of web software called “start pages.” These are sites that let you assemble your own Web pages out of widgets, gadgets, and snippets than each implement some specific function. One of their most important – and oldest – functions is to gather and display news feeds from the Web. But you can do much more than that with them: you can add a clock, a description of the weather, stock market quotes, check the traffic through popular web sites, create to-do lists, play games, and access other services like Google Mail, or Facebook, all through little boxes on a Web page.
For some people, these start pages are the cat’s meow.
Years ago, I got an account on Netvibes – which remains the leader of the pack in terms of popularity – and thought it was great. Below is an image with a sample of some of the kinds of widgets you can get on Netvibes. On the left is Google Calendar running in a widget. In the centre column is a news feed constructed of items I’ve tagged with “sustainability” in Google Reader, followed by a dynamically updated graph by Alexa of the number of page views on a few of the popular social bookmarking sites. On the right is the built-in tool to tag and bookmark sites, above a slideshow of one of my picture albums on Picasa. Clearly, there’s all sorts of things you can do with Netvibes.
You can set up tabs within your Netvibes page to organize your feeds and widgets; it has a good assortment of themes and customizations; and the software looks good and acts right. Of course, since Netvibes provides a free service, there are the occasional bugs – like some, but not all, of my Google Calendar appointments render with the wrong time zone in Netvibes’ Icalendar widget. Or that for several months, the Alexa widget showed only 1 site, no matter how many I had configured in to it.
Still, Netvibes is one very smooth Web app. I especially like their to-do list widgets, that let you interactively reorder the items and change their colours. Here’s a shot of some of my Netvibes to-do widgets.
Over time, though, I came to realize that start pages can be so much more.
…I’ll skip all the time I spent trying to find just the right way to benefit from start pages. Instead I’ll just write that in the end, it wasn’t a matter of figuring out how to use all the widgets, but figuring out how to stitch together a number of tools, of which a start page was only one.
Of course, I’d also heard of the iGoogle start page. I checked a few others, including MyYahoo, and smaller efforts like Sthrt. MyYahoo and iGoogle both had a serious problem: I couldn’t make my pages there public for the world to see. Since one of the reasons I wanted a start page was to present an aggregated view of information I’d collected for my students and the public at large, this eliminated both MyYahoo and iGoogle. The other services all had significant problems of one kind or another.
When the dust settled, there were only two players left: Netvibes and Pageflakes. Netvibes is clean, efficient, and well-run, and their support is just fine. Pageflakes feels a little clunkier, and there are occasional service outages that don’t seem to be explained anywhere by their staffers. They are both very easy to use. If that were all there was to it, I’d've stuck with Netvibes.
But Pageflakes offers a few widgets that Netvibes doesn’t, and these, for me at least, made all the difference in the world.
The blog widget might seem weird for a site intended to aggregate the content from other blogs, but it’s very useful. For example, I have a tab (or a pagecast as they like to call it in Pageflakes-speak) devoted to my recent trip to Sweden. On that tab, among other things, is a blog widget where I write about what the trip meant to me. Basically, you can set up tabs for any number of topics, and include a mini-blog that covers just that topic right in the tab itself. And these blogs support pretty broad formatting (via a WYSIWYG editor), commenting, and their own RSS feeds.
Mind you, it’s not a full-blown blog system (like this one), but it’s plenty good enough for many smaller tasks.
Next is the message board widget. This widget lets anyone post short messages, including nested replies, as you can see in the image to the left. Different from the blog, which is basically just one-way communication, the message board approximates some kind of chat facility.
Again, no matter what you’re doing on a Pageflakes tab, you can add a message board to let people ask you questions or post other thoughts, which you can then reply to.
The AnyFlake widget is the third great idea at Pakeflakes. It lets you create HTML either in a WYSIWYG editor or in raw text, and will render pretty faithfully whatever you put into it. This means you can embed other things – like youtube videos – into an AnyFlake. Or you can create a surprisingly complex document with many features of HTML (headings, lists, embedded images, links, colour changes, etc.) that will live inside a widget on a tab. You really can put nearly anything into an AnyFlake.
How does Netvibes compete with this? Not very well. While it doesn’t really have a widget like Pageflakes’ AnyFlake, Netvibes does have a number of very crisp widgets that can, between them, handle anything that AnyFlake can do. Unfortunately, Netvibes can match neither the message board nor the blog widgets in Pageflakes. All Netvibes has to offer is a Wall widget, on which anyone can write up to 1,000 character messages. Unlike the blog widget, there’s no formatting, or embedding of images or links in the Wall. It just doesn’t compare.
In fairness, I will also say that the ToDo widget in Pageflakes is really not up to its cousin on Netvibes. And that irritates me, because I love my to-do lists.
Of course, Pageflakes has many other widgets, some of which are essentially the same as Netvibes widgets, and others that are substantively different. You’ll have to explore them on your own. All I can say is that, for me, the extra functionality of the Pageflakes blog and message board widgets really opens up possibilities; and the consistent simplicity of the AnyFlake lets me generate custom widgets pretty quickly. As a professor, I can easily see a tab for each of my courses, with a list of bookmarked resources specific to the course, a message board for students to ask questions of both me and the rest of the class, a blog for me to make announcements, a picture gallery of interesting images relating to the course…. All kinds of interesting possibilities there.
In the meantime, you can check out all my public Pageflakes tabs at http://www.pageflakes.com/FilSalustri. And if you’re looking for a start page that offers a lot of good functionality, then you need to take a good look at Pageflakes.