Walt Mossberg

Desktop Modules Help To Personalize Data, Cut Through Clutter

In the past couple of years, there has been an upsurge in Web sites and computer programs that allow consumers to mix and match small modules containing either constantly updated information, like news headlines, or miniapplications, like calendars or calculators.

These technologies allow users to create highly personalized pages filled with just the information or tools they desire. If you’re interested in the car industry and college basketball, live in Toronto, love to view family photos and often use a calculator, you can fill your computer screen with small modules that display relevant information and necessary tools for all these interests. You won’t have to browse through the Web or launch a bunch of large programs.

These modules and miniapplications appear as small square or rectangular objects, with the content or functionality inside. You can arrange them as you like.

There are two broad categories of these personalized pages — those that appear as Web pages, and thus require you to be online to use them, and those that are on your local desktop. The latter don’t require an Internet connection, though some of their modules may work only if you’re online.

On the Web, the most familiar of these modular systems is My Yahoo, which allows you to combine page segments featuring Yahoo‘s own news and information with segments containing syndicated feeds of headlines from other sites, often called RSS feeds. Others have launched similar pages. One longstanding competitor is Microsoft‘s my.msn.com.

On the desktop, the best known miniapplication system is Apple‘s Dashboard, which allows Macintosh users to install tiny programs called Widgets that perform searches, display photo slide shows, track stocks, play music, and more. Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system, out this week, has a comparable system called Sidebar.

Now, there’s a new free Web site that combines some of the best features of My Yahoo and Dashboard. It’s called Netvibes, it’s available at Netvibes.com, and it’s unusual because it’s from Paris, France — not Silicon Valley or Seattle.

Like My Yahoo’s system for displaying feeds from non-Yahoo sources, Netvibes allows you to fill your personal page with headlines from all over the Web. And like Apple’s Widgets, Netvibes’ modules are produced by a wide variety of users, who upload them and make them available free.

I’ve been a My Yahoo user for many years, mostly because it allows me to see a lot of information at a glance, and it’s mainly plain text so it loads fast. I also use Apple’s Widgets on my Macintosh machines. But I find myself using Netvibes more and more lately.

Netvibes isn’t the only new Web player in the personalized Web page space. A new entry called Pageflakes, run by an ex-Yahoo executive, promises a graphically richer approach than Netvibes that the company claims is easier for novices to customize. It’s at pageflakes.com.

And Yahoo is in the process of revamping My Yahoo to update its look and features. The details of the new design aren’t public yet.

Like My Yahoo, Netvibes is text-heavy and loads quickly. But depending on which module you use, it can have color and graphics.

A menu down the left-hand side of the screen lets you quickly add modules to Netvibes. Popular ones are listed in this menu, and you can browse or search for others by clicking a link called “Get more modules.” You can add feeds — headlines from regular Web sites that support them — by clicking “Add a feed.”

Among the modules you can add to your Netvibes page right from this menu, without navigating to any setup page, are weather forecasts, a notepad, a to-do list and calendar, and modules that perform searches for Web pages, blogs, pictures, videos and podcasts.

There are also email modules that will display your new messages from Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, AOL Mail or any regular old email account you configure. Others display content from eBay, MySpace, Fox Sports and more.

To add an unlisted feed, you just navigate to a Web page that offers feeds and copy the Web address into Netvibes’ “Add a feed” feature. Or you can place a button on the toolbar in the Firefox Web browser that will add a new feed with one click.

On my Netvibes page, I have modules that show the weather, my latest emails, the most popular stories from the Journal’s Web site, and top headlines from various technology and sports Web sites. I have colorful modules displaying photos from Flickr and other photo sites, and modules for video searches.

One nice feature of Netvibes is that you can set up automatically updated searches for terms that may appear in blogs all over the Web. For instance, you could create a module that will constantly show any new blog entries featuring, say, “Microsoft Vista” or “Apple iPhone.”

There are some downsides to Netvibes. Some of its modules seem aimed at techies, not mainstream users, and others are in French, though a version customized for American users is in the works.

But Netvibes — and competitors like Pageflakes — will give My Yahoo a run for its money. They provide an easy way to cut through the clutter of information that confronts us all.

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