19 March 2015

Homepages and startpages

Dear readers,

Long time no see, eh? (now I sound like a Canadian, to some of you...). I have very poor excuses for this long absence. But one of the true reasons is that I have started a weekly column on the Greek Liberal Monitor. Of course, that's a lot of energy spent that I can't spend on this blog. I know, that column is not that old, and I've been absent from here for a much longer time. But that's real (married) life for you, dear readers... Nevertheless, I hope you'll forgive me and indulge the following little rant.

I am a bit old school, IT wise, and I am told that's OK. But I have always appreciated a good start page for my browser homepage. I know that many true IT people think it's completely has been and that the default Chrome page (with its most used pages mosaic) is good enough. But bear with me a little: there are quite many cases when you want to monitor stuff in a simple way, even if that stuff is not used that often. These links would soon disappear from your history and thus from your standard Chrome starting page. Bookmarks are way too many in my case to play that role, as the desired links would be lost in the hundreds of them. What I need is a one click access to stuff I chose, regardless of how often I use it. For instance, my Youtube channel: I use it rarely, but I want to have access to it immediately. And no, just typing Youtube in my URL field is not good enough. First because it might bring the latest Youtube channel I watched instead of mine and second because it's longer than one click and I'm a lazy bummer.

So you see, I need a personalized homepage. Moreover, I want one which has some kind of visualisation of what's going on. I want to be able to see my Google calendar, if I have important appointment or things to do. I want to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds. And I want to see if I have new Gmail messages, and so on. These things are called Widgets in geek lingo. They are ugly and sometimes not super safe, from an IT point of view. But if you know more or less what you are doing, they are useful.

In the old times of the Internet, I had discovered iGoogle. That was exactly what I was looking for, especially since it integrated flawlessly with all the much famed "Google ecosystem". IGoogle was great, it had RSS feeds, integrated with Google News and Google Reader, Gmail, Youtube and so on. It was also quite accepting of third party feeds, pages and widgets and had all kind of nifty stuff from the weather to silly online games. Alas, good things never last. That's one of the rules of the universe: entropy and corporate greed usually put an end to all the best stuff. In this case, it was the much reviled killing of both iGoogle and Google Reader which ended my dream of a clean and useful homepage. I had to find a replacement for both. Reader was the easy one. After a couple of trials, I settled for Feedly and never looked back. At the time, people like Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent were complaining, rightfully, that it was too much of a closed system, with no OPML export or other backup feature. It had its issues as well. But I realized that the developers behind it were working fast to bring in much demanded features like this and I decided to stick to it. I was rewarded in my patience, as Feedly quickly became the best application out there for simple news feed access and sorting.

However, replacing iGoogle proved to be much more difficult. Obviously, other existing web applications had their own quirks and integrating Google ecosystem software in them proved uneven, at best. I tried many, before settling for Netvibes (a French application, produced initially for corporate users by Dassault Systèmes). Netvibes had it all for free, from RSS feeds to Google integration and various widgets for pretty much everything. To this date, it is probably the best replacement for iGoogle one can find... or nearly so. Because, unfortunately, somebody there had the genius idea, some weeks ago, to clean up the app/widget ecosystem of Netvibes. In that clean up, the good people at Dassault got rid of probably the most important app for me: the excellent Google Calendar visualisation widget. They replaced it by a home made widget. I thought: "ok, this is not a disaster, after all, who cares who makes the widget if it works"? Unfortunately, whichever poor random trainee was put in charge of this was clearly not up to the task. While the widget is visually well integrated with the rest of Netvibes (a flaw of of the previous one indeed), the programming behind is simply atrocious. For some silly rendering reason, the widget shows you all your appointments and calendar items for all the years for any given day. This obviously makes the widget nearly unusable. Since I am no corporate user and thus don't have access to personalized support, I decided that it was time to go graze greener pastures...

I had a look at several pretty good systems. Most of them I can heartily recommend. However, not all of them were suited to my needs. First was Symbaloo, which is a visually awesome bookmark system. As a homepage, it is great and it has some nice widgets that they call features, for some reason. But, for me, that didn't actually work too well. The system is beautiful but way too closed and without much user customization. The worst problem is that there are no configurable widgets. This was a big non-starter for me: I don't need just a bookmark system, I need a visualisation page. Also Symbaloo was not that great in regards with RSS feeds.

I also tried Startme and uStart. Both of them are excellent, Netvibes-like application. However, they didn't pass the test of being able to cater for all my needs. While Startme was good at integrating Google and Flickr stuff, its widgets are a bit clunky and can't be resized nor do they link to the main application easily. Conversely, uStart was natively playing nice with Facebook but the Google stuff was uglier or difficult to use. They had other features which were better as well, so I don't want to talk these down. They were just not ideally fitting my specific needs. Maybe they'll fit yours. After much trials and errors, I eventually settled for Protopage. At least for the moment. I learned that it was actually the very first of such web applications, before even iGoogle. It is in any case the only one which survived. It is not as easy to start with and set up as the others, by quite a margin. However, with a bit of tweaking, the end result is pretty great. Google integration is very good, adding RSS feeds is a breeze. Facebook and Flickr were a lot more complex to put in, but the result was worth the effort. The overall customization was nice as well: you can add a picture for the background, change colours and fonts or the number of columns of the main page. And you can pretty much resize the blocks to the pixel. So here it is, you can have a look at the result:

Tell me what you think!