As the Web matures into a richly intertwined ecosystem of shared content and open services, what some call The Web As Platform, some innovative companies are beginning to offer potentially disruptive products that leverage the Web's growing "platformness". Increasing in popularity in particular are what some people call Ajax desktops, or personalized start pages. Well exemplified by Microsoft's Live.com, but also by the likes of the popular Protopage and Netvibes, the interest in these online desktops is being driven by a confluence of factors.
One major factor is that we are struggling with attention scarcity; finding enough time to digest the proliferating sources of information we need to track on a daily basis. I don't need to tell you that the sheer variety can be daunting and now usually includes e-mail, calendars, contacts, to do lists, news, weather, school closings, blogs and work documents like spreadsheets, presentations, and more.
Another factor is having to manage all the software and information location (URLs and directory trees) needed to consume our information sources. So as important sources of information only continue to proliferate, it's driving a desire to simplify and centralize their consumption. Not helping is the aging model of personal computing, which wasn't designed with this blizzard of federated content and functionality in mind.Not helping is the aging model of personal computing, which wasn't designed with this blizzard of federated content and functionality in mind. Notwithstanding the capable RSS and OPML features offered by the forthcoming Windows Vista, today's PC operating environment is increasingly unable to offer users a meaningful solution to managing their information. And with attention scarcer and scarcer, people are also less willing to spend time installing, upgrading, and patching all the instances of the productivity software, e-mail clients, and PIMs they use. Constantly synchronizing information between home, work, and family PCs is also another growing chore. The final nail in the coffin is that as more and more content is available as services via RSS and other Web services it's finally making consolidation of consumption truly possible.
This is making the simplicity and elegance of online desktops ever more attractive. A quick check of Alexa traffic for Protopage, Netvibes, and the compelling new entry Pageflakes, shows that marketshare amongst the small players is clearly growing but still up for grabs. Live.com by contrast is growing by leaps and bounds and its reach already far exceeds any of the small Ajax desktops. But the growth of all is clear and the model for going to a single place that has all of our information ready to consume is a powerful draw. And now, increasingly, Ajax desktops are offering some integration with real Web 2.0 online applications like Writely and Zoho Writer, two online word processors that have partnered with Netvibes and Pageflakes, respectively. And Live.com is expected to have integration with the forthcoming Office Live, though I don't specifically have confirmation of that yet.
Now, for those of you that haven't used Ajax desktops yet, they are a far cry from the HTML portals of yesterday. Yes, all of the new Ajax desktops do the traditional portal of work of gathering the content sources that interest you, from news and weather to your favorite blogs and del.icio.us bookmarks. But a number of things make the new online desktops a serious native desktop alternative that will increasingly compete with today's PC desktop, both on the Web and in the enterprise.
Value proposition for online Ajax desktops
- One Stop - Centralized online consumption of content and services
- Accessible Anywhere - Roaming accessibility from anywhere with Web connectivity
- All Your Data - Easy integration of most existing information sources including e-mail, calendars, bookmarks, news, blogs, pictures, etc.
- Engaging, Fun, Fast - Rich, interactive experiences that match native software
- A Platform that Grows And Evolves - Open platform for in-browser third-party software add-ons (Live.com's Gadgets and Pageflakes' Community Flakes)
- Intelligent Consumption - Ad-hoc, decentralized, user guided content filtering and mashup creation
In other words, Ajax desktops vie for the coveted spot, along with traditional PCs and native software, for the center of the user experience. But as we spend more and more time online, and more of our information increasingly comes from online sources, these online desktops will be hard to pass-up alternatives. Microsoft's Live.com clearly anticipates this and is ready to capitalize on the trend as more users get comfortable storing and managing their information online.
Out of all of this, two trends are particularly interesting. One is that some of these start pages are truly open platforms, and there seems to be enough engaged users ready to develop compelling add-ons that extend the experience and make them thriving communities. This represents two key tenets of Web 2.0: that a platform beats an application every time, and that great software makes itself reusable and extendable in unintended ways. In particular, Microsoft's Live.com Gadgets are offering consistently interesting new software that lives right in the browser, which anyone can create and share.
What do you think, will online desktops really become the center of the average user's experience?