Phil Sim

Web, media, PR and… footy

Build-your-own-widgets gains momentum

So Google today relaunched its personalised home page as iGoogle and announced the ability for users to create their own gadgets, which has received a bunch of coverage throughout the blogosphere.

Personally, it’s nice to see Google heading in that direction because it’s exactly where we’ve been headed with the Wyaworks Widget Creator (disclaimer: I consult to Wyaworks on product development and strategy). While the Google Widget maker allows users to create simple, fairly static widgets, the Wyaworks Widget Creator enables you to build your own full-blown, database-driven widgets.

I’ve got to say, even I’m surprised how useful I’ve found these. My company is now standardising on the Pageflakes AJAX desktop as our Intranet platform and I’ve got about a dozen widgets running across our shared Pageflakes tab for various functions like HR, editorial management, project management, etc. Each of these widgets has taken about 5 minutes to create, they can all interact, and I can personalize them to match our business processes precisely. We had been using Google spreadsheets for these kind of ad-hocs applications, but the problem with that is that they’re difficult to find and never really at hand.

John Hyde, CEO of Wyaworks has added a host of functionality since they were first announced. Security has been added, they run across iGoogle, NetVibes and Pageflakes, columns can be sorted, data sets can be restricted by field values and widgets can share information and fields. Widgets can be created by simply adding fields, or alternatively you can turn any spreadsheet into an AJAX desktop widget by simply importing a spreadsheet. We took a spreadsheet of customer records, imported it, and bam, we had a customer contact management widget, automatically populated with our data in a matter of seconds. Being able to access this kind of information, all from your AJAX desktop makes this kind of information incredibly accessible and easy to use.

I’m convinced that some type of webtop, or AJAX desktop, will become most people’s home page and online hub. I predict that within the next couple of years, every web application will have widget-versions of their applications that can be integrated into this kind of environment, or else they will incorporate their own AJAX desktops – that’s the way we’re heading with our MediaConnect and ITJourno portals. Most likely, it will be both.

It’s nice to see this idea start to pick up pace, when Wyaworks is so clearly the market leader in this space. I still think the killer feature with these widgets it the cross-platform capability. The openess of AJAX desktops means you don’t want to be tied into any particular desktop, so you really want to be able to take your widgets with you. While iGoogle, Netvibes, and Pageflakes are supported right now, Wyaworks has the potential to allow widgets to be deployed to any platform and with this market moving so quickly, that’s an incredibly important feature.

Filed under: Google, Web Development, Webtops

Making AJAX desktops REALLY useful

AJAX desktops, or webtops, are cool. Whether it be Google Personalised Homepage, Netvibes, Microsoft Live, Pageflakes, etc, etc, more and more people are making their start pages one of these new breed of widget-based services.

I tend to use both NetVibes and Google but as a business tool, I’ve found them both limiting, because while there are a lot of widgets out there for both ecosystems, there’s always stuff I’d like to plug into them, but can’t. It was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote a post called A Web 2.0 Intranet on the cheap where I talked about combining AJAX desktops, iframes and RSS to create a pretty powerful Intranet on the cheap. But at the time, I also expressed frustation about the limitations of what could be plugged into this environment.

Well, I’m pleased to announce that a new tool – the Wyaworks Widget Builder – which I’ve been involved with and which I really believe makes the AJAX desktop environment a far more compelling environment for a business to deploy as an intranet platform (Video here).

I’ve been collaborating on-and-off with John Hyde from Wyaworks for more than 12 months now, and last April we showcased a little form-builder tool called Wyacracker. The idea was to enable anyone to plug mini-applications into blogs, Google Pages, MySpace, emails, or indeed anywhere really that you could paste the required script into. The project was to be something of a marketing exercise for the Wyaworks platform, which John has been using in his custom programming and consulting business for a number of years now to do rapid-application-online-development for companies up to the very largest enterprises.

It was reasonably well-received, but in the end, people don’t have that much cause to plug forms into blogs so it didn’t really extend the goal of Wyaworks which is to enable anybody to easily and simply build applications to suit their exact requirements.

However, when you start to grow attached to one of these AJAX desktops, the ideal is to have an ecosystem you can plug everything into. Problem is, that it’s almost certain that at some time or other, there will be a widget you just wish someone had built, but it simply doesn’t exist. And that’s where the Wyaworks Widget Creator comes into it. http://www.wyaworks.com/google/google.jsp is the URL to add to your Google Homepage.

John built this application on top of the Wyaworks platform in less than a week, after I suggested it to him. So it doesn’t have the prettiest interface, it’s reasonably raw, and right now, it only runs on the Google Personalised Homepage (hopefully Netvibes and then others will follow pretty quickly).

But essentially, it lets you create any application-style widget for your Google Homepage that you can possible think of. My first attempt was for a story database, to keep track of our story leads and where different stories were in the workflow process. In less than 2 minutes, I’d built my Story Tracker widget, which now sits front and centre on my Google Homepage.

Enthused by that, I then decided to see how much of an Intranet I could build out using the Wyaworks Widget Builder. I started by creating a CRM tab and then build an Accounts widget, to keep track of our clients and companies we deal with; a contacts widget to keep track of the people we deal with; an Opportunities widget to track sales we were working on and finally a Leads widget for incoming opportunities. Voila, a CRM application built in 5 minutes. All of the widgets can share data, so I can pull company and contact data into my Opportunities widget, for example. And the forms are all fully portable, so I can stick the leads form onto our home page, and anyone who expresses interest will feed straight into the Leads widget.

I then created a HR tab. Again, in less than 5 minutes I’d built an employees database, an expense claim widget, and an annual leave request form.

The widgets take data in-and-out of Excel. If your already using Excel to manage a contacts list or keep track of just-about-anything, you can instantly turn that into a widget just by importing the data straight into the Widget creator. Or if you want to use Excel to do additional reporting and spit out graphs and so forth you can export your data to Excel at any time. And, these applications are infinitely scalable as well. As I mentioned, the Wyaworks platform has been used to build web apps for Fortune 500 companies, and these widgets use exactly the same architecture, so if that little CRM widget starts to grow a life-of-its-own, you can start tooling around on the full Wyaworks platform and build a fully relational application.

Indeed, click on the application it pops up a stand-alone version of the application.

Clearly, I’m biased but this tool is so simple and powerful, that I think it can really expand the potential for the whole AJAX desktop category. I’m hoping John gets time to re-tool it for Netvibes or Pageflakes reasonably soon, because my biggest issue right now is with some of the limitations of Google Personalised Home Pages, especially when in Google Apps start page mode. Netvibes and Pageflakes have a heap of fantastic features like being able to define the number of columns in a page, and also sharing tabs, which will even better empower this widget-based development model.

But in the meantime, if you use a personalise Google homepage, you should check out this widget. It’s free and it really is just a matter of minutes to build any app you can imagine a need for. Again check out this video to see how it works.

Filed under: Webtops

AJAX Challenge: Online Suite Spot

I’m getting well used to using Writely now. Really the only thing its missing for my day-to-day use is an automatic spellcheck. Having become used to Word’s automated red squiggleys I now seldom remember to click on the red squiggleys. So if Squash typos are annoying you, blame Writely. ;-)

I now post directly from Writely to my WordPress.com blog. That’s really kind of neat. As a journalist I’ve never had a production system where you could sent text straight out of your text editor into a production system. This is a functionality shared by Zoho Writer too.

Speaking of Zoho, I was well pleased to hear that the Zoho spreadsheet is on its way. It was due for any day now but is running a couple of weeks behind schedule. However, I’m already ruminating over what having all my Word documents in Writely and all my spreadsheets in Zoho Sheet will mean.

Zoho has gone on record as to the fact that they’re also working on a Powerpoint tool, so effectively they look like being the first and probably only provider of a full online suite. I’ll be interested to see how they bring this all together.

As I’ve said in the past, the primary reason I’m using Writely is I don’t like how Zoho manages your documents store. It’s fine if you have a half dozen, but as that mounts up, Writer really falls down and Writely with its ability to both tag and archive documents is far superior.

When Zoho pull together their suite, though, they’ll probably be able to leap across any stand-alone applications on this front because really I want to see all my documents, spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations, etc that relate to a single subject aggregated together.

That said, the nirvana is really to pull together my Writely documents, Zoho spreadsheets plus my Trumba calendar appointments, Gmail emails, etc. To all you AJAX desktop companies, take a tip. This is where you need to be focused because at the moment you’re just building gloried RSS readers. What I really want is to be able to tag something in Writely, Zoho Sheet, GMail, Calendar, tagged news articles, images, etc and them be able to click a tag on my Webtop and pull up everything under that tag regardless of what online app it exists in. Think del.icio.us meets Backpack. But where the aggregation all takes place automatically.

Of course, the challenge here is to be able to pull all of this data out of your various online applications so that you can aggregate it together. In particular, you’ll need to tap into GMail, Yahoo Mail or Hotmail because that’s where most people spend most of their day, these days, and that’s where your most valuable data lies.

So while an Office suite provider like Zoho is aiming to become, has a distinct advantage and could pull its application together in a way that makes life easier than using best of breed standalone online apps, eventually, it’s really only someone like Yahoo, Google or Microsoft that could pull the whole thing together.

Of those, Yahoo could do this most easily. Imagine if Yahoo bought Zoho. It could use del.icio.us as a central tag store, with tags from Yahoo Mail, Flickr, Yahoo Writer, Yahoo Sheet, etc all automatically populated. Give My.Yahoo a much needed overhaul built around pulling all this together.

Filed under: AJAX Challenge, Online Applications, Online Spreadsheets, Online Wordprocessing, Webtops

I’ve flipped already

I’ve previously noted that I’ve been doing the bulk of my writing in an online word processor of late, Zoho Writer. However, since I’ve been storing more than a half dozen or so documents I’ve become a bit frustrated with the way it handles your document archive and so I had another crack at Writely.

This time round, I didn’t have any problems at all with Writely. I’d previously had all sorts of issues with the spellcheck. I’m not sure if they’ve fixed it or if its related to the fact I’m now using Firefox but I’ve not had any issues lately and I do much prefer the way it manages documents.

So for the moment I’ve flipped word processors. And it’s been all too easy. I haven’t forked out a cent for the service, so I have no financial qualms about changing, I don’t have to install any new software or worry about file incompatibilities. That’s great for me, not so great for Writely or Zoho though, which have to keep competing to maintain me as a user.

The one thing neither have is automatic spellcheck. For both I have to click the spellcheck button to get my little red squiggly lines, that Word inserts automatically. I’ve left feedback with both camps requesting the feature and whichever one delivers the functionality will win me until there’s a new feature I find myself needing.

It’s a similiar situation with my homepage/webtop. I’ve switched between My Yahoo, Google, Netvibes and Live.com about a dozen times. They’re all set up similarly with my favourite feeds and then when one of them upgrades I give it a go and then decide whether I go back to my original choice. Even switching calendars is a breeze as most services allow you to export and import.
Now this is the kind of flipping I’m into.

Email tends to be a bit tougher because even if you forward or download your mail to multiple services, you can’t take your sent messages with you. I think that’s why, in the end, people’s portal of choice will be most related to the flavour of email they prefer. After all, there’s absolutely nothing to tie you to search and I think in the end all of the search engines are going to get beter and will eventually have less differentiation between them. Email, as the application most people spend the most amount of time in, remains the killer app IMHO.

Filed under: Webtops, Word Processing

Google rolls out the canons in homepage war

If there’s one war we’re watching with particular interest it’s the Home Page war. 

A couple of hours ago, Google announced on its Blog that it was releasing a Google Homepage API and would now support richer web apps.

Google, which already dominates as the favoured Home Page on the web, has for some time allowed users to personalise its home page with RSS feeds, a GMail preview, online bookmarks, weather and so forth.

However, this latest announcement ups the ante in what is shaping up as a fascinating war. 

Google have provided a couple of sample apps to show how the system works. I’ve already loaded the Time & Date app into my desktop and I’m looking forward to seeing what independent developers come up with over the next couple of months. Certainly, it looks a fairly straight forward process of wrapping existing web apps in an XML wrapper so that they tie into the Google Homepage framework.

But Google is hardly pioneering on this front. After all, My Yahoo has offered a much richer personalised home page for a couple of years now and this latest move will only pretty much bring it up to par with the Konfabulator widgets that Yahoo acquired (and recently renamed as Yahoo Widgets).

However, we can’t see Yahoo being a player in this space primarily due to it’s advertising-driven revenue models. The secret to a great Home Page is how well you make use of screen real estate. I dumped Yahoo as my personalised home page because half the screen was filled with whopping big advertisements. Google’s Home Page motivation is to get users to keep searching with the Google Search Engine. So they don’t have to make a choice of forfeiting huge amounts of real estate or cannibalising their revenue streams.
 
And can someone tell me how the hell webtop start-ups like Favoor, Netvibes, etc expect to make any money? They can’t tie up screen real estate with ads, so where’s the revenue model? Surely, burning money would be more fun?

So that pretty much leaves Google to fight it out with Microsoft which recently got into the game with its Windows Live service and its implementation of the AJAX-driven, portlet-style home page is very slick. Given its big base of Hotmail users and it’s incumbency on the desktop, it’s sure to be a player. At least in the first instance, we expect most users to stick with their webmail provider as their Home Page, or webtop, of choice.

So it will be interesting to see if Google properly opens up access to GMail with an RSS feed. In doing so, it gives alternative desktops a fighting chance of at least winning eyeballs, if not making any money.

You can bet Microsoft won’t be opening up Hotmail in anyway shape or form.
 
Because this is an important battle. The Home Page is most users jump off point for all thing web and will increasingly be so as personalised home pages develop and become even more smart and useful.
 
Just incidently, it’s media companies that stand to lose the most in this war. These days, people either set their Home page to a search enginer or their favourite news site. Once they start setting home pages to personalised Google or Microsoft pages, stacked with their favourite RSS feeds, it’s going to take a lot of traffic away from your big media sites, and that includes Yahoo and MSN. Squash reckons they’re going to take an almighty hit on this front and will therefore increasingly find themselves competing on a purely content basis with the web’s squillions of news sites, blogs, etc.
 
This may not be the web war to end all web wars, but it’s up there, in terms of who will eventually rule the Internet.

Filed under: Webtops

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