Sunday, April 08, 2007

The homepage problem

There are lots of homepages out there - e.g. Windows / Unix desktops, browser homepages, Google personalized homepages, phone & PDA homepages - but I've never really seen one that satisfied me.

This is partly due to the offline / online schism. My windows desktop doesn't show my online documents, and my Google homepage doesn't link to My Documents and the Control Panel. The taskbar competes with browser tabs for flipping between applications. The start menu has been totally left behind by web applications.

But it goes deeper than that. My phone homepage has 12 clear pre-defined options - phone, calendar, contacts, etc - but desktops can't seem to do this (since Windows 3.1, anyway). Desktop icons are much too vague - every web link has the same icon, of my browser. And we can't give a consistent user experience - every different computer, PDA, and phone has a different homepage, even for the same user.

The only real solution is to further integrate the browser with the operating system. This may bring back bad memories of Microsoft in the 90s, but the internet has changed the rules again.

I've listed five recommendations to address the homepage problem:

Reclaim the browser homepage Your browser homepage should be the same as the desktop homepage - you shouldn't be allowed to change it to anywhere else, whether Google or Myspace.

Standard homepage options On the homepage should be a standard set of options:

  • Favourites (editable)
  • History (with options to delete it)
  • News feeds (editable)
  • Browser options (editable) - e.g. view settings, security settings. Some of these will take you to other web pages for more detail.

Replace icons with thumbprints and widgets Today's icons have had their day. It no longer makes sense to store five word documents or websites on the homepage, with no visual way to distinguish between them.

Instead, use thumbprints to show the contents of a documents. Keep the description or filenames underneath the thumbprint.

Another common use of icons is to open an application (rather than a specific document). Internet applications, such as Gmail, Skype and Flickr, should be allowed to display widgets, rather than just icons. These will appear as mini homepages in their own right, highlighting important information and allowing the user to click to open the application to explore further. For example, Microsoft may create a widget on the homepage to cover the basic Office Suite, showing recent documents, highlighting important features, and graphically advertising the applications. Best practice would be to allow the user to select from large, medium and small widgets for each application, to control real estate.

Links to files and control settings (in HTML)

Also on the homepage, there should be hyperlinks to take you to windows explorer, help pages, a comprehensive list of local applications, the control panel, and various widgets.

All of these should be in HTML format, so they open in the browser. This includes windows explorer, as per Google Desktop, so that it can show web content alongside local content. The objective is to improve navigation (those forward and back keys), make the user experience more consistent, and allow web content to be integrated with local content.

Use RSS feeds to synch homepage

All items on the homepage - whether thumprints, widgets, or user options - should be stored as a set of RSS (or Atom) feed, and synched with an internet provider selected by the user. When offline, the locally cached version is displayed. When online, the fully up to date version is displayed.

The homepage problem and the internet
There's no doubt that no one has really solved the homepage problem yet. The answer lies in bringing the power of the web to the desktop.

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