Is a Dashboard for the Web Possible?

December 2, 2009

I’ve been rolling this idea around in my head for awhile (right Twitter followers?), and I mentioned it briefly in my Shortcts.in post: a dashboard from which I can access the various Web apps and communities I use on a daily basis.

People nod their heads when I talk about it, and the example I have often used to help illustrate my idea is iGoogle. Except that iGoogle is just for Google products or widgets people have built for iGoogle, like weather widgets, games and such. I like that I easily check my Gmail and my Calendar, see if there is anything immediate, but I still have to open another browser tab to access any other Web app or community.

I started thinking about the Web apps and communities I use all the time, which lead to me checking out all the tabs I leave open…and I leave quite a few open. Here’s just a sample:

Toss in teaching email and the education portal, and it starts to get a bit unruly. I’ve taken to breaking them up into different browser windows. One with communication apps, one with communities and one with news and miscellaneous. When researching, I open yet another browser window and multiple tabs, but close it when I’m finished.

You might ask why I just don’t log of all of them, close the browser at night and fire it up again in the morning. FireFox does, after all, let you save your browser and all its tabs, as is. While that makes sense, let’s think about this for a minute.

Logging out means I have to log back in. Now, if I used the exact same username and password each time, that would be easy, not only for me, but or anyone interested in seeing what I do in all these places. So, alas, I don’t use the same username and password for each one. Now that means, every day, I have to remember the username and password for all of those listed (and many others not listed), and then type in the username and password, every day, for each one. That is 15 login credentials. Each day. Right now.

Think about that. 15 different logins. And that doesn’t include any financial sites, either, or open source discussion boards, the T-Mobile discussion boards…the types of sites visited periodically.

Perhaps I am just used to opening my laptop every morning and immediately starting to work, but I don’t think I’m the only one. And I think there has to be a better way to manage all of this, especially as more and more desktop applications move to the Web.

Ugh. Right. Google Docs is another open tab. Which leads to more open tabs whenever I open an existing, or create a new, document. Thankfully it is connected to Google, so just logging into one Google product gives me access to the rest, but again, it’s another series of tabs to manage.

Anyway. So iGoogle had been my common, visual example. But then I was chatting with a good friend of mine through Meebo, which is a Web app that allows you to communicate with people you know in, well, just about all the different IM clients: Gchat, AIM, Yahoo!, Facebook, ICQ, MySpace, MSN…and it hit me. You can communicate with people on all those different clients from one, yes, one single browser window.

Where is the Meebo equivalent for all the different Web apps and communities I use every day?

I have two answers:

  1. No one has thought of it yet (Ahem, I did!)
  2. There are a myriad of technical hurdles to overcome

I’m guessing that the second reason is more the culprit than the first. I’ve thought of it, been pondering it and finally have a solid comparison. So now comes the hard part: implementation.

Meebo grew out of the same frustration I’m currently experiencing, only it was limited to IM clients. One of the founders, Sandy, had to remember 13 different usernames and passwords, all related to various chat clients used at work, at home, with friends, etc. You can read more about it here. The story goes on to explain “playing around with Ajax IM” and proving doubters wrong.

And this is where my technical expertise, that “dangerous v. deadly” comparison I made before, comes into play. I know enough cursory information on Ajax to understand what it does. In fact, I had to write up some SEO-friendly content on the subject a few years ago, but I have no idea how the guts of it actually work.

So, those of you very tech-centric people that read this blog, is it possible to create a Meebo for the rest of the Web? Is it possible to create a central dashboard, accessed from a Web browser, from which I can see and access all the different communities listed above (to start)?

Shortcts.in came up with a solution for finding keyboard shortcuts. Meebo has come up with a solution for accessing multiple IM clients from one browser window.

So who can help me see if this Dashboard for the Web is a solution for the chaos of my (and others) browser tab woes? I guess my real question is this: is a a Dashboard for the Web technically feasible? Or have I just thought up a really big idea that has absolutely no ability to be implemented?

Comment, tweet me, let me know. There really must be a solution.

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Shortcts.in More than Just a Dashboard Solution

November 23, 2009

Every Thursday, Jason Goodrich puts on an event called TechThursday at OfficePort. It’s a multifaceted opportunity that I have attended more than once. I admit to being decidedly bummed when I missed the previous week due to a significant technical glitch that required all hands on deck. Not to mention an academic technical glitch the previous day that required grading papers and exams by hand.

Alas, I digress.

TechThursday. Multifaceted opportunity. It’s a chance to network, of course, and to see a local person/group/company show off a new (and usually interesting) product, but it is also a chance to engage in self-reflection and take stock of your own situation, your own direction. I’ve found myself doing this quite a bit lately. For me, I think it takes a few months for things to kick around in my head and not panic. Not panic so much as question. I question. Often. And that can be both helpful and demoralizing.

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation from 4 guys, the “Dudes” (Jon Buda, Dave Giunta, Mike Laurence, and Matt Puchlerz), who showed off an app created during the SocialDevCamp Hack-a-thon. The app is called Shortcts.in which embodies, to some extent, and idea I have had of a central dashboard from which to navigate to the myriad of Web apps I use every day. But Shortcts is decidedly more focused and as they explained how they came up with the idea, I found myself enthralled.

I should note I played no part in this app what-so-ever. The app just reminded me of the central dashboard idea that keeps popping into my head (and I keep tweeting about).

The purpose of the site is to make it easy to find keyboard shortcuts for applications like FireFox, Photoshop and even BaseCamp. For the moment, it is Mac specific, which is cool. I’ve often gone trolling for something and found thousands of Windows options, and 0 Mac options. So it is refreshing to see a Web app created specifically geared toward the Mac.

Hearing them talk about the process was eye-opening, and I was somewhat surprised I could so easily identify. They pointed to the strict 24-hour deadline, more than once, as the real decision engine. Meaning they made decisions based on what they felt comfortable delivering at end the of the 24-hour hack-a-thon, and what they could push off for later. The result earned them the Design award at SocialDevCampChicago, and they have since continued working and refining the app.

Two things struck me about the presentation that made me erase…err…think about the myriad of questions of I have been asking myself lately.

The first thing was building an app for fun. An audience member asked about their monetary strategy, and they currently don’t have one. Why? Because the app wasn’t built with the intention of making money: it was built to solve a problem (improving on finding short cuts) and for fun. One of the members can never remember shortcuts, and all the sites that came up in results were pretty much useless. And the four of them had wanted to do something fun for awhile, the opportunity presented itself and they seized it.

Money is constant issue, which I certainly don’t have to say but did anyway. It has been a constant source of pressure for me since being laid off last April, and it’s hard to push it out or bury it for any length of time. But seeing the app in action, and hearing them talk, made me realize that I have been asking the wrong questions. And I have been asking the wrong questions because those are the only questions people ask. Part of this stems from my own internal struggle, too.

The second thing that struck me was the “false starts.” They’d tried a few projects together that didn’t pan out for one reason or another. It took a few tries, and one time-sensitive event to bring an idea to fruition. And bringing an idea to fruition is much harder than simply having an idea. I’ve discovered that the idea is the easy part, despite what people say. Shortcts.in wasn’t so much an idea, per say, as a solution. Remember, one of them could never remember some shortcuts, and found websites with shortcut lists rather useless. So why not create a better way to find shortcuts for themselves?

One thing I’ve found in my thought process is that I immediately seize on my lack of technical expertise. Technical expertise, I should say, in terms of programming. I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be deadly. And to make an application like Shortcts.in you need to be deadly. My lack of programming skills has been a source of frustration for me. It seems to inhibit my ability to do what I want, which is kind of ridiculous, if you think about. I have a broad skill set already. Do I really need to add programming to the mix and risk pigeon-holing myself? No. I’ve acquired such a broad skill set because I’m a curious individual, constantly searching for new things. That’s one of the reasons I read so much.

Anyway, it was enlightening to see a 4 guys each bring something different to the table. I found myself slightly envious, but also encouraged as I ponder my new venture. Being self-employed/entrepreneur, it’s easy to feel isolate, to think that you’re toiling by yourself and no one else understands. That’s only partly true. Friendships and partnerships aren’t formed overnight. It might take a few “false starts” to find the right combination or people, or the right project, and that is OK.

There is some truth that a person can only take so much rejection and negativity, but it is stories like Shortcts.in that can snap you out of that, even just for a moment.

I, for one, am a fan of Shortcts.in and look forward to the next TechThursday event at OfficePort.