RIP Pageflakes?

Pageflakes is deadSome 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.

UPDATE 28 Nov 2010: Pageflakes is back, sort of.  Today, I was able to load part of one of my pages.  A number of small images didn’t load – so you can’t really tell what you’re clicking on – and it was incredibly slow to load even the little it did.  But there seems to be some life in the old girl yet.
UPDATE 2 Dec 2010: I cannot yet get a full load of Pageflakes.  Sometimes some widgets load; other times I get a “service unavailable” message.  It seems like their servers are drowning – in what, I don’t know.
UPDATE 13 Dec 2010: Pageflakes appears up and running.  Loading pages is still (sometimes) an ordeal.  I can find no explanation or discussion about the service outage.  The Community area is loading poorly.
UPDATE 22 Mar 2011: It’s down again. It may have been for some time.
UPDATE 8 Apr 2011: It’s up again. Response time seems much faster. I wonder how long it will last this time.

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Diigo V4 goes live

Diigo V4 is here!

Diigo V4 is here!

Diigo is a web-based bookmarking and annotation service.  I’ve written about it before.  It’s the service I prefer over all the other free and comparable services because it seems to have just the right mix of functionality and usability for me.

One thing I have complained about in the past was the look and feel of the site, which seemed clumsy, especially when compared to what I think is the most well-designed bookmarking service: Delicious.

Well, someone was listening to me, I guess, because Diigo just announced version 4 of their site.  And the key piece of the upgrade is a new and very much more polished look and feel.  Indeed, the layout of the page is quite similar to Delicious!  That’s okay by me; as far as I know, Delicious hasn’t protected its look and feel.  This is just Diigo’s recognition of a superior aspect of another product.

Of course there’s more to Diigo V4 than just the look and feel.  The other features are:

  • web page snapshots on demand;
  • improved search;
  • improved annotation features (important for Diigo as a collaboration tool);
  • a new, more streamlined way to share links and follow the links of individuals and groups;
  • highly expanded and refined group-based activities;
  • a new meta page structure for summarizing a user’s overall activities;
  • an iPhone app (pending Apple’s approval); and
  • a variety of other improvements.

You can read further details at the Diigo blog.

This is a good upgrade, besides providing a new and better service, it’s aggressive enough to indicate clearly that Diigo is interested in providing an excellent service, without totally re-inventing the service (which would have alienated some users).  Version 4 a brand new version, so there are probably a few bugs in it, but overall it’s A Good Thing.

Why I chose Pageflakes over Netvibes

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.

A small sampling of Netvibes widgets

A small sampling of Netvibes widgets

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.

Some of my to-do widgets in Netvibes.

Some of my to-do widgets in Netvibes.

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 and Message Board widgets in PageFlakes

The Blog and Message Board widgets in PageFlakes

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.

My web presence, IV: Diigo wins by an annotation

I’ve decided to use Diigo as my key bookmarking app.  Here’s why.

There’s a lot of useful stuff on the web, but it’s usually hidden in an awful lot of crap.  As a professor and design researcher, it’s important for me to have access to a wide assortment of good information.  The web can deliver that information only as fast as I can identify it.  So when I do find something particularly useful, I want to make sure I can remember (a) that it exists and (b) where it is.

Enter bookmarking apps.  These are web-based applications that let you bookmark other sites, and then search your bookmarks quickly.  Because the bookmarks are stored on servers elsewhere on the web, there are two immediate and important benefits.  First, you can get at your bookmarks from anywhere (i.e. you don’t have to carry your laptop around with you just for the sake of accessing your bookmarks).  Second, you can share bookmarks with others (this is an interesting and under-utilized method of collaboration these days).

Years ago, I’d pondered the few existent bookmarking services and found them all lacking on one particular front: you can tag a website, but the service won’t index the site too.  I think indexing would be good because the only “best” set of tags is an exhaustive set of descriptors and keywords that describe the item, which no one really wants to type in.  Most keywords are already in the item’s content, so why should one have to type them in again?  By indexing items, one can use fewer tags, which also makes tagging easier and more consistent.

So, since I couldn’t find what I needed, I decided to roll my own.  It’s quite buggy still, but SERF does work, sort of.  I call it “anti-social bookmarking” because I’m the only user who can add/edit items.  That’s mostly because (a) the software is still, as they say, pre-alpha, and (b) it’s only for storing the links that I care about for my teaching and research.  I’d love to develop it further, but I can’t get the funding I need to develop it as a research project, and I can’t find programmers I trust to work on it for me a-la FOSS.  (Though I’m always open to opportunities.)

But the web waits for no man, and while SERF is good for some things, there are more items that I want to track than I can possibly add to SERF – partly because many of them don’t have that much to do with my work.

So I needed something else, something I could use to pitch items into as temporary storage, but still functional enough that I can use it to quickly look things up when I need them – and make them available to my students and colleagues.

I’d had a Delicious account for ages, but never really used it.  By the time I realized that I really needed a bookmarking app, there were competitors.  So for the past couple of months, I’ve been playing with Delicious, StumbleUpon, Diigo, and Twine.  And I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Diigo is what I need.  I decided this based on five criteria: bookmarking functionality, look and feel, extra functionality, shareability, and performance.

Bookmarking

Delicious, Diigo, and Twine all have comparable basic bookmarking functionality, including appropriate bookmarklets and toolbars.  Basically, you navigate to the page you want to bookmark, click the right icon and you get some sort of popup that lets you tag the item, add a description, and, depending on the service, do various other things.  Twine has the most web-2.0-ish facility, but that doesn’t necessary impress me.  All but StumbleUpon recommend tags based on others who tagged the same resource.  But since I have my own tagging scheme that I find is significantly different from those of most other users, this doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as basic bookmarking goes, all four systems are pretty evenly matched.

Look and feel

Look and feel is, for me, extremely important, partly because I do appreciate an aesthetically pleasing web site, but also because I’ve found that look and feel ties very closely to usability.

Here, Delicious really shines.  It has an absolutely brilliant look and feel.  The screen is laid out in very carefully chunked areas that have consistent structure and content no matter what part of the site you access.  Every little design feature of the page serves a very clear purpose, and everything is there only once – there’s no redundancy.  Everything is visible: no strange icons or bits of text magically appear when you mouse over something.  (That really annoys me.)  I’m sure people who specialize more in web usability could go into much more detail, but suffice it to say that the Delicious look and feel is, for me, like a breath of fresh air.

Diigo comes in second.  It has a good layout with just a little redundancy.  Everything is visible.  I don’t like Diigo’s rendering of the tag cloud; it’s not as elegant as that in Delicious.  Indeed, the entire site is just not as elegant as Delicious – it looks slightly rough and seems to not use screen space quite as well as does Delicious.  (This might be because Delicious has been around for so much longer that its developers have had the time to carefully tweak the look and feel much more.)

StumbleUpon is next.  It’s interface is interesting, but not flexible enough for me.  I wish there were other ways of arranging things; I don’t mean just skins or themes here, I mean the arrangement of the actual items.  It has an ugly tag cloud.  I wish there was an easy way to get rid of the screenshot thumbnails for each entry; I can understand that some people might like them, but I find them useless.  And I was never able to get rid of them.  I don’t like how they string tags and the URL on one line, because if you have more than a few tags, the URL is truncated.  Indeed, showing the URL is of limited use anyways.  The other systems expect you to mouse over the item’s title and look at the address bar of your browser.  Put all these things together, and you get an app that I just don’t feel comfortable using, compared to the others.

Twine, unfortunately, comes up last here.  I tried real hard to understand the Twinerly way of doing things, but I just couldn’t get it.  I keep loosing track of which part of the screen I should be looking at, and what all the boxes were for.  The problem isn’t exactly the layout, but it’s the content.  For instance, under My Items, you can filter the list of your bookmarked items in lots of different ways – too many ways, if you ask me – including by “related people,” the meaning of which I’ve not yet deciphered.  Lists of items also seem to include all manner of items including individual bookmarks, twines (socially-constructed feeds of items on particular topics), comments you may have posted on individual items, and other things too.  I find this confusing, and I wish they were somehow compartmentalized.

Long story short, every time I use Twine is like the first time.  Which is not good.

Extra functionality

Each of these services provides extra functionality of one type or another.  Caveat lector: this category is very subjective, because the functionality I value is the functionality I need – which might not be what you need.

All four services offer alternative ways to establish groups around specific topics or subjects.  Each site has it’s own particular way of doing it, but they all really amount to the same thing.  They also all offer RSS feeds for virtually any list of items you can generate.

StumbleUpon has a very interesting service: you specify what kinds of websites you like (about, say, science fiction, or AJAX programming, or Labrador Retrievers) , and then when you hit the Stumble button, you are taken to a random site of that kind.  You then rate it with a simple thumbs up or down.  StumbleUpon’s recommendation engine uses your ratings continually fine tunes it’s recommendations.  I really like this approach – it’s clean and simple – but it works for people who aren’t looking for anything in particular, which is a category that doesn’t include me most of the time.

Twine’s unique contribution is it’s AI-ish tagging engine that is supposed to help you tag things and organize them into feeds (twines).  The problem for me is that my personal tagging style is informed by years of study on classification systems and taxonomies, which means I’m not your average tagger.  So Twine’s recommended tags rarely line up with what works for me.

Delicious offers little in the way of extra functionality except for being able to search the entire tag cloud of all entries, which can be amusing, but no where near as much fun as StumbleUpon.  But Delicious is the purist’s bookmarking site and extra functionality is just not what it’s about.  Which is fine by me.

Then there’s Diigo.  Diigo allows you to highlight and annotate sections of a web page, and share those annotations with other users.  Installing the Diigo toolbar gets you a collapsible sidebar in which all these annotations can be read side-by-side with the corresponding source material.  This means that groups of people can collaboratively analyze documents online and asynchronously.  It also means I can note specific passages that are important to me, so that when I come back to them later, when I’ve forgotten why I bothered to bookmark the site, I can just read my own annotations and remember what all the fuss was about.  Absolutely brilliant, especially for scatter-brained eggheads like me.

In terms of extra functionality, Diigo runs away with the prize.

Shareability

By shareability, I mean the ease with which bookmarks can be shared with others.  Here, again, Diigo pulls out in front – just by a tad – by providing synchronization of Diigo bookmarks with some other services, including Delicious.  I haven’t seen comparable services from the others.

All four systems support RSS feeds, and sharing via other mechanisms like email, or the formation of groups or other structures like them.

Performance

In terms of access speed, page load speed, and general zippiness, the only site that I found quite slow indeed was Twine.  Not only did the pages take long to load, but there are often quite dramatic pauses between clicking on a link and getting any response.  I know it’s not my ISP, because everything is behaving properly.  Perhaps Twine’s AI features combined with its recent and sudden increase in popularity is putting a bit of pressure on their servers.  I hope that’s all it is.

Still, speed is everything these days.  Web 2.0 apps were originally conceived especially to improve (perceived) performance on the client side.  So a slow Web 2.0 app, such as Twine, is really a contradiction in terms.

Summary

StumbleUpon has the fun factor, and Delicious has the brilliant look and feel.  These are important.  But to me, nothing can beat the raw functionality of Diigo’s annotation system.  Twine, unfortunately, just didn’t make the grade.

So, while your mileage may vary, I’m convinced Diigo is the cream of the crop for me.  And since I sync my Diigo bookmarks to Delicious, I also have an excellent “Plan B.”

I also continue to check updates on both Twine and StumbleUpon, because they’re different from what Diigo offers, and I occasionally find some really cool sites that way.

Other things

Sometimes, strange things happen on the Internet.  One of these things is Compete.com’s graph of unique visitors to Delicious, Twine, and Diigo.  The sudden spike in activity for Delicious relates, I think, to their offering connectivity with Twitter.  Twine’s increased activity, however, is different; it’s more gradual and shows all the marks of classic exponential growth (i.e. “going viral”) that mark word-of-mouth transmission.  The dip in the past month could be an anomaly – after all, some people just get caught up in things when they go viral, and eventually come the other side saying: What was I thinking? – or it could be something else; we’ll just have to wait and see.

It’s the exponential growth that gets me.  What in the world got into people?  I’ve been experimenting with Twine since long before October 2008 when the growth started, and I noticed nothing.  Sure, there were some changes to Twine’s user interface a few months ago, but they seemed pretty minor to me.

And then there’s the Alexa rank data for all four bookmarking sites, which you can see at the top left of my Computers tab on Pageflakes.  Since it’s rank that’s displayed, the low number is best.  Notice that Twine is the lowest rank, and StumbleUpon is first.  Also notice that something happened just before April.  This tells a different story than does Compete.com.  And I can’t find any explanations anywhere.

So much data; so little information.

Wrap-up

Lesson: I didn’t know what I really needed till I played with these systems.  You can rarely solve a real problem just by thinking about it – no matter what they taught you in high school.  To solve real-world problems, you have to act, to do things that poke at the problem.  This sets up a feedback loop between the problem and your brain that let’s your brain work both consciously and unconsciously on the problem.  This means you’ll solve the problem faster.

So when you’re looking for any kind of system, take the time to play with the alternatives and take the time to reflect on the good and bad points of each.  Make notes.  Then weigh the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision.  It’s harder and takes longer than just choosing something, but the upfront cost will more than pay off in increased productivity (and fun too!) later on.


Also see my last post about my web presence: A First Attempt.