The battle of the homepages continues

It was inevitable that someone in the ongoing battle of the Ajax homepages (okay, it’s no Alamo, but hey — we have to do the best we can on the new frontier) would eventually eat a bullet, and in this case it turned out to be the fittingly named Fold which, well… folded. That leaves Netvibes, Protopages, Pageflakes, Zoozio and — oh yes — a couple of little players named Google (with its google/ig) and Microsoft (with live.com). Both Netvibes and Pageflakes have recently gotten financing, so someone must see a future.

Richard MacManus of Read/WriteWeb sees a future too, and I’m not so sure that he’s wrong. In a recent post, he says that what now appear to be just cool homepages with some Ajaxy modules could become the portals of the Web 2.0 future, with all kinds of widgets and tools built in. In a sense, they could become a virtual desktop — the tool you use to gather all the bits and pieces of your online life together, all of them interacting and updating automatically.

I confess that I’m a big fan of Netvibes.com, in part because it is fast — a lot faster than Google’s ig, as far as I can tell — and because it is flexible, with dozens of different modules (such as Flickr, del.icio.us and Digg modules) and features including the ability to add new tabs, click once and mark all items in a feed read, and so on. Google’s effort, much like its other tools such as Google Reader, verges on the lame. It seems slow and clunky, you only get three columns (Netvibes.com has four) and you can’t add new tabs. Admittedly, those kinds of things aren’t exactly a powerful barrier to entry.

I almost hate to admit it, but Microsoft’s entry in the portal sweepstakes has gotten better. When I first tried it, Live.com totally blew. It was slow and buggy and useless — kind of like Windows 1.0. But now it has gotten a lot faster and sleeker-looking, and is the closest to having what I think is a competitive offering compared with Netvibes. I like Pageflakes too, but for some reason it seems cluttered. All are racing to add as many modules as they can, but so far Netvibes has the most useful ones, such as a window where you can track your Writely.com documents, and a connection to Box.net online storage.

Pageflakes has added a “share this page” feature so you can effectively publish your page, and Netvibes now lets you add modules to the Netvibes “ecosystem.” As for Google, one thing that it does have going for it — and I think this shouldn’t be underestimated — is a mobile version of its portal that is fast and slick. In fact, when it comes to mobile RSS readers, it is right up there with the best. I’ve tried several, including one called conveyor.com for the BlackBerry, and they all leave something to be desired. This could be an important differentiator between the competitors going forward.

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