Over the past year many new AJAX homepages, aka personalized start pages, have been introduced to the market. Microsoft and Google have offerings, as do a host of small startups. First I'll define what an AJAX homepage is, then I'll do a feature comparison between the leading services.
AJAX homepages are being touted as a new kind of homepage for the Web. Microsoft and Google are set to dominate, but don't count out the open platforms yet So what makes them different from 90's era portals like Excite and AltaVista, apart from the use of AJAX? Well this new kind of homepage isn't just a place to store all your content and links. It'll house your widgets, gadgets and web services too. And as I'll explain, having an open API platform to build widgets and web services is going to be crucial for the growth and survival prospects of AJAX homepages. It will also allow open standards-driven companies like Broadband Mechanics (who I do work for) to utilize those platforms - which will in turn benefit users and feed back into the widgets/modules ecosystem.
Types of AJAX Homepages
Looking at the 2006 class of portals/personalized pages, there are two distinct groups:
1) The big guns: Microsoft (live.com), Google (Google Personalized Homepage) and Yahoo (My Yahoo, which is still mostly an old-style portal).
2) The little companies: Netvibes, Protopage, PageFlakes and a host of other contenders.
I did an analysis of their traffic on my other blog Read/WriteWeb, which showed that the big guns are obviously far ahead of the little guys in terms of traffic. But what about features and functionality? Let's look at each of the main products...
Live.com is a work in progress, built on the back of Microsoft's original demo start.com. With Live.com, users add 'gadgets' to their page. Gadgets are basically mini applications - like widgets in Konfabulator (now owned by Yahoo). Currently the gadgets on offer in Live.com are the usual set, which most if not all of the other AJAX homepages also offer: mail, stock quotes, weather forecasts, horoscopes, ticking clocks, quote of the day, etc. But there are signs that much more functional gadgets are on their way - for example a tv recommendations gadget, which talks to your Media Center box in order to program tv shows. 181 gadgets have been built to date on microsoftgadgets.com, with many more to come.
Also Live.com has an open API and looks to have a growing developer base for gadgets. This is going to be the key for survival for any AJAX homepage - offering APIs and enabling developers to build gadgets/widgets for the platform.
As the "homepage for windows live", Live.com will undoubtedly have a huge user base and probably developer base too. This is the one to watch, unless Google (see below) can up the ante.
A quick note on this: start.com is now being used as "an incubation project", mostly to test ideas for live.com.
Google's offering is very similar to live.com currently - the main difference is that Google calls its gadgets 'modules'. Google too has an open API, so will attract a decent developer base. There is a growing directory of modules created by third party developers in the official directory. They are also available, perhaps in a more easily browseable way, at third party sites.
Google hasn't publicized or positioned their Personalized Homepage much, especially in comparison to how Microsoft is positioning Live.com as the homepage for Windows Live. Microsoft's Live.com will integrate with Windows live services (security, mail, and other services that will be added soon) as well as MSN services (shopping and more to come). But no word yet from Google on how they will integrate their Personalized Homepage with their product line. As always though, you can never underestimate what Google will do... watch this space.
The leading small company currently, it is most peoples choice as the best 'web 2.0' homepage. But it has no APIs! Unless this is addressed, I think it's going to be their downfall. It's essential to have ways for developers to build on their platform, otherwise there isn't much room for growth.
Despite this, Netvibes has a slick UI and growing list of features. They have also done a lot of partnerships with other services, such as Blogmarks. Plus the development team is always busy and rolling out new features to their reported 750,000 customers, such as the recent POP IMAP module.
Update: The Netvibes developers tell me they currently have an Open API available to "selected developers", which they will open to the public very soon.
Has a unique UI, but like Netvibes its future growth will be hampered by having no API. I understand that ProtoPage users have managed to create widget-like interactivity by using custom HTML. So hopefully that can be taken the next level and official web services support introduced.
Just released earlier this month, but potentially Pageflakes will be the most open of all the AJAX homepages. It offers standard modules (which it calls "flakes") like blogs, news, search, note, Flickr, Del.icio.us. There are more modules in development by Pageflakes, third-party developers and "content partners". It's developer page lists a broad range of options for developers to build modules, so this is a promising start by Pageflakes.
It has a nice UI too, but that won't generally be a competitive advantage in this space. Most of the players have nice juicy AJAX interfaces, so there's little to differentiate each of them. This is why I think an open platform will be absolutely key, especially for the smaller players hoping to (somehow) compete with Microsoft and Google.
This is a site that has received comparatively little blog coverage. It doesn't look anywhere as trendy as the likes of Live.com and Netvibes, but it has a very promising developer environment. It's described as "a free-form environment that allows you to create different kinds of web pages and web applications". But the best part is it features a blogging interface, which I think could be a defining feature. It also offers project tracking and an extremely modular design.
Goowy is also worth mentioning, as a Flash-based alternative to the AJAX models. It has a nice graphics and feature set, but alas no sign of an API.
Those are the main players I have identified so far. Others I've come across that have a standard and plain set of features - and so may struggle to survive - are: Eskobo, favoor, LinkedFeed, ItsAStart. They all need to find a way to differentiate themselves, if they want to break through in this already crowded market. Zoozio and Wrickr are two others that got some buzz, but there's nothing to see as yet.
Microsoft and Google will likely dominate this space, with Yahoo perhaps entering the market with its own widgets homepage in the near future. With an asset like Konfabulator on its books, it'd be strange if they don't at least re-design My Yahoo to accomodate web services and widgets. Among the smaller companies, Pageflakes seems to be the most promising with its API support. It's not too late though for Netvibes and the others to join the party and open up their platforms to developers.