Thanks to an ever-increasing deluge of digital information, many of us have computer desktops that look like our physical ones. But instead of being crowded with Post-it Notes, paper, folders, and magazines, our virtual workspaces are cluttered with electronic documents, links to the Web, and software applications.
Recently, a new set of tools have emerged to help us control our digital lives, giving us a way to consolidate information into one place — even onto a single Web page. ("Keep it to one page" isn't just the mantra of résumé writers anymore.)
The idea of a personal Internet portal is nothing new, of course. Excite and Yahoo! have had "My Page" features for years. But these new tools are taking the concept to the next level, with better functionality, added flexibility, and greater ease of use. Some tools let users assemble collections of Web pages, or parts of Web pages, into a single browser window. Others are designed to capture and organize the bits and bytes that we need on our hard drive, as well as on the Web.
What can these tools actually do for you? How much time do you need to spend up front to save time down the road? To find out, Fast Company tested four of the Web's most popular organizational tools. We rated each tool based on functionality (How much can you do with it?) and ease of use (How easy is it to get the tool up and running? How hard is it to add new information later?). Here's what we learned.
Ease of Use ****
Quickbrowse is just that — a quicker way to browse the Web. The tool was created by Marc Fest, 33, a Florida-based freelance journalist who was searching for an easier way to surf the Web, so that he could spend more of his free time doing what he loves: surfing the waves. When he couldn't find a tool to help him browse the 20 or so newspaper sites that he visited each day, he wrote Quickbrowse. He told a few of his friends about the tool, and, like every good idea on the Web, word of Quickbrowse spread quickly.
Quickbrowse isn't an especially robust tool, but what it lacks in functionality it makes up for in ease of use. Getting started couldn't be easier. Just register by entering your email address and a password, and you can begin to enter the URLs that you want to browse. Hit the "Quickbrowse" button, and the tool stitches together the sites into one long, scrollable page. The pages look exactly how they would appear if you visited them individually, and all of the links work. When you click on a link, a separate browser window opens for the new page.
Sound easy? Well, it gets better. Once you've created a master page, you can save it to Quickbrowse's home page so you can access your master page without retyping your list of URLs. You can also create multiple master pages. We created a daily-news page as well as a technology-news page. Each page pieced together information from five different sites. Although there's no limit to the number of sites that you can add to a Quickbrowse page, it's a good idea to keep your page count to a reasonable number. The more sites that the service has to piece together, the longer it will take for each master page to load.
Could a service this easy get any easier? Absolutely. You can have your Quickbrowse pages delivered to your email inbox. Select a delivery time, choose a frequency (daily, weekly, or monthly), and decide how you want to view the text (as an email in HTML or as an attachment). You can even specify the date or the day of the week that you'd prefer to have the message delivered.
The site is elegantly simple, but it's not perfect. When we used Quickbrowse, the tool was identical to the one that was designed by programming hobbyist Fest, for his personal use. The user interface wasn't the slickest, and the site was a bit slow and clunky. The tool also had a hard time handling sites such as the Wall Street Journal's, which requires users to log on to gain access to its contents. However, these problems will be addressed in the tool's latest version. And if Quickbrowse can solve them, then we'll definitely sign up — quick!
Ease of Use *
OnePage is similar to Quickbrowse, but instead of combining entire Web pages, this tool lets you take your favorite parts of Web pages and put them onto a single site. OnePage also lets you add images, headlines, and tables. Unfortunately, the process for building these metapages is cumbersome, and it doesn't always work. For example, when we went to Fast Company's home page, the tool didn't display all of the images on the site. When we chose one of the images that it did display, named it, and added it to our OnePage, it mistakenly added two copies.
You can also add content from OnePage's directory. The directory is a list of already-collected bits and pieces of sites that have been organized by category. But adding content from the catalog is only slightly less daunting than adding it directly from the Web. First, we had to select a broad category (we chose their "lifestyle" category). This led us to a long list of choices, such as "movies" and "hobbies." When we selected "movies," we got a screen that included NetFlix, a DVD-rental company that we thought would offer current movie listings. After choosing NetFlix, we ended up with a box that listed the top-10 movie rentals, rather than the current theater listings that we were hoping for. (Note: The site was in beta testing when we used it, so some of these problems may be fixed soon.)
But if you have patience and tenacity, OnePage does provide some nice features. For example, it lets you create and save multiple pages and then email them to friends and colleagues. But unlike Quickbrowse, OnePage's metapages can't be bookmarked. You have to log onto the OnePage site to retrieve your pages. Similar to My Yahoo!, OnePage is designed to be your browser's start page. But we're not sure that we're ready to start there just yet.
Ease of Use **
Like OnePage, Octopus.com is designed to let users retrieve and organize parts of Web sites, rather than entire pages. You can also create multiple pages, save them for later retrieval, and share them with friends via email. But unlike OnePage or Quickbrowse, Octopus.com lets you grab parts of Web pages while you surf. This feature is called the Octopus Backpack. To add this function, just drop the "Octopus this!" button onto your browser tool bar. When you find a piece of content that you'd like to clip, click on the "Octopus this!" button, and another browser window featuring boxes that outline each individual piece of content launches. You can add pieces by hitting the "add" button, and you can clip sections, links, forms, or pages.
Once you've finished collecting the content, you're ready to build your page, or "view." Just visit the Octopus.com site, and open your Octopus Backpack. You can then either add the Web clips to an already-existing view or create an entirely new view by dragging and dropping the clips from the Backpack into the "Octopus view" area.
However, you don't always have to start from scratch. The tool offers a Yahoo!-like directory of pages that have already been created by other users and by Octopus's editors. For example, you can select the "find movie showtimes" page. When you enter your zip code, you'll get a list of theaters that are closest to you. Just drag and drop your theater of interest into the new view, and you will automatically get a list of the movies and show times at that theater.
Enfish OneSpace, by Enfish Technology (www.enfish.com)
Ease of Use ****
All of the tools that we've reviewed so far focus on organizing information on the Web. But what about all of the stuff on your hard drive? Part online service, part software application, Enfish Onespace automatically organizes your hard drive while incorporating relevant Web content.
Just visit Enfish's home page, and download the application. The software will take an inventory of everything that is on your hard drive — files, documents, email, to-do lists, appointments — and then create a directory. Depending on how much information you have on your hard drive, this process can take two hours or longer (but you can tell the service to work while your machine is idle).
The next time that you sign on to your computer, Enfish Onespace will automatically launch (although you can tell it not to). On the left side of the program window, a directory tree will appear that includes several categories. The "people" section gives you a lists all of the people in your contact-management program. All of the companies in your contact list will also appear. The "my computer" section lists the contents of your hard drive. The "my mail" section lists all of your email accounts.
The right side of the program window shows all of your appointments and tasks, the latest headlines, the weather, and your email inbox. And everything works together. Click on the "people" section, and you'll get a list of all of your contacts. Select a name from the directory, and you'll get the person's contact information. You also see any news, notes, people, appointments, and tasks that pertain to this contact, as well as any other related items, such as email and documents. You can also see contact information and related data if you select a company from your list.
Enfish Onespace is more than just a great way to keep track of all of your information. It is also an excellent way to make sense of it. Enfish Onespace is by far the most robust and easy-to-use tool of this sort that we've encountered. However, you'll have to sacrifice some flexibility when it comes to obtaining content from the Web. Enfish Onespace will only retrieve content that is related to the contacts or to the companies on your contact list from the content providers that the service has already partnered with.
Aside from that shortcoming, Enfish Onespace is one space that you won't want to live without.
Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company associate editor, is based in San Francisco.