If Apple, Amazon, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, Facebook, and Satan were forming a mega-portal that would satisfy all my Web needs (and in return I'd have to sell my soul and get a Bluetooth-enabled "slave chip" embedded in my eyeball), I'd be like, "What's the catch?" Don't get me wrong. I don't want to go back to the days of dial-up AOL, when "The Internet" was a tiny button above my "You've Got Mail" splash page. Still, it would be nice to have an online command center, a storehouse for everything I do on the Web. Imagine all of your favorite search engines, news feeds, music, photo streams, and social-networking sites wrapped together in a neat and tidy package.
All of the Web monoliths want to be that kind of one-stop shop. That's why Google gave birth to Gmail, Yahoo scooped up Flickr, and Amazon sells everything from golf clubs to ladies' underthings. The more time you spend in, say, the Googlesphere, the more you get out of Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and all the rest. Google Homepage does a pretty decent job of knitting all these tools together in a seamless, if somewhat uninspired, package. (My Yahoo and Windows Live aim to do the same for the Yahooverse and Planet Microsoft, respectively.)
But Web monogamy is for the birds. As much as I love my Google Apps, my cheating heart can't live without Yahoo-owned del.icio.us. Sure, iTunes is great, but the music maniac in me still needs Last.fm and eMusic and 10 million music blogs. What Web lovers really need is a home page that gathers all the stuff you want, whether it comes from Google or Yahoo or your Aunt Tilda. Well, I'm here to report that I've found that ultimate mash-up. Netvibes is one of the most delightful Web sites I've ever used, and (miraculously) it's free.
As soon as you go to www.netvibes.com, you can start customizing your home page. While Google Homepage starts out as a mostly blank slate, the default Netvibes layout gives you a good sense of the service's capabilities. There's a notepad, a to-do list, headlines from the New York Times and Wired, sports scores, and a four-day local weather forecast. The default mode also has four search boxes—for general Web search, blogs, images, and videos—that can toggle between different search engines. And most important, there's a module that allows you to keep up with the e-mail account of your choice: Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, .Mac, or even your POP account. You don't have to be a Web genius to figure this stuff out. Most users—my parents, for instance—would be quite happy with this default setup, and they wouldn't even need to call an IT guy to help set it up.
While Netvibes serves newbies remarkably well, it's best suited for obsessive power-users. I'm talking about the kind of people, like me, who've memorized hotkeys for dozens of obscure Web apps. Just to give you one small example of my madness, I switch browsers from Safari to Camino when I'm listening to MP3 tracks on music blogs, and I use Peel to aggregate said tracks. This might sound superfluous to you, but I love having these subtly different delivery mechanisms. Those of you who share my affliction could join a group home for incorrigible Internet addicts. Or you could sign up for Netvibes, which makes this kind of insane multitasking easy to pull off.
To go beyond the defaults, click the button marked "Add/Browse Content." That takes you to a deceptively simple sidebar that lets you add RSS feeds from a number of popular blogs as well as modules for following Craigslist searches, Digg stories, and MySpace pages, among other things. Dig a little deeper, and you'll stumble upon the fast-growing Netvibes Ecosystem. I can trace my puzzlement, wonderment, and delight during my early Ecosystem explorations because I carefully recorded my musings in Netvibes-provided Webnotes. Here is a steamy excerpt from my diary (soon to be made into a major motion picture):
Okay, it's Wednesday and something really weird just happened. I kept fantasizing about a Last.fm player working in Netvibes. And now ... a Last.fm player works in Netvibes. Is it legally permissible for me to give birth to Netvibes' child? A crime against nature, yes. But true love can't be denied.
(You can find the Last.fm player here.)
Once I started adding feeds and modules and tabs, there was no going back to my old surfing habits. With seven tabs filled to the brim with dozens of RSS feeds, Netvibes is now my Web nerve center. Not only can I read all of my favorite blogs—I can listen to my Last.fm radio station from my Netvibes page, or find photos of Brooklyn, or monitor blog posts on the 2007 Cricket World Cup. I open Netvibes as soon as I fire up my browser, and I close it only when I'm about to head out the door. Pretty soon I noticed that I wasn't foraging around the Web quite as much, and I had saved a fair bit of time in the process.
Netvibes isn't perfect. All those modules take precious seconds to load, even with a blazing-fast broadband connection. Also, keep in mind that most Netvibes modules are user-created, and they can be slightly buggy. The comment thread on this Google Talk module, for instance, is filled with complaints. A complaint of my own: When I switch from one tab to another, my fancy Last.fm player shuts down. This is very frustrating, to say the least.
There's an even bigger problem: If you subscribe to billions of blogs, each with their own RSS feed, Netvibes can be a pain. Each blog has its own little module, and so far I haven't figured out an easy way to read all of the items from all of my blogs in a single view. That's why I'm still using my superconvenient Google Reader as a fallback. And that ain't good news for Netvibes.
So, Netvibes isn't exactly the home page of my dreams. But it's getting there. All those quirky, buggy modules are getting better, smoother, and more sophisticated. Unlike the tools you add to Google Homepage or My Yahoo, Netvibes modules have a consistent, clean look. Most important, you get the sense that Netvibes wants to unite all warring tribes—Amazon and eBay, Google and Yahoo, dogs and cats, Sanjaya and Simon—under a single Ajax-enabled roof. Call me crazy, but I think they're going to pull it off.