This WidgetsLive panel featured Adam Sah from Google Personalized Homepage, Sanaz Ahari from Microsoft's Live.com, and Tariq Krim from Netvibes. After the usual product intros, the panel got more interesting with conversations steered by Niall Kennedy (the moderator).
Niall started by asking about monetization. Sanaz said that being a homepage for Microsoft properties is key for them, rather than making money as a standalone product by advertising. Adam said it's similar at Google and they want to drive traffic to their properties via the start page.
In terms of how they're driving users to their start pages, Tariq said that their growth is viral. Sanaz said that for Microsoft, giving users the choice of lots of content and pointing them to directories is important - which gives live.com utility for users. Adam said that Google tries "not to play favorites" [with the widgets they display] and they want to enable discovery - like in search.
Niall asked whether businesses can 'buy' their way onto the homepage lists. Adam said no and that they try to find ways to rank gadgets - making the good ones bubble to the top. Sanaz said that Microsoft has been playing around with a few models - the directory, the gallery ("our community"), and thirdly the Web (user adds their own modules, via search etc). She said they're "in a learning phase", so Microsoft is still experimenting.
Niall mentioned that widgets interacting with each other is important. Tariq said they need to figure out how widgets communicate with each other - and standardize that. He said a new business model may evolve once the industry has achieved that. Sanaz said that for start.com and then live.com, that was the main driver - but the main issue for them is security, which needs to be scalable. Adam said "it's possible to do inter-gadget communication", but he says there's been little demand from users so far. He hasn't seen many gadgets that achieve this.
Finally Niall asked the panel whether the start page is a jump-off page for users, or one where users will stick around. Sanaz said it's a combination of both - and that some users spend a high amount of time on live.com. Tariq said that start pages are evolving towards creating "a longer term relationship with the user". Speaking of which... I spoke to Tariq earlier today in the hallways and he told me that productivity is a key theme going forward for Netvibes. I interpreted this to mean he wants people to do things and run apps from within Netvibes, not just use it as a 'start page' to jump off to other sites.
Interesting panel and the differences between the three services was noticeable. Netvibes (and other independents like Pageflakes and Webwag) need to find a way to monetize their services, but Microsoft and Google have the luxury of not needing to worry about that. But also you can see the cultures of both Microsoft and Google show through in their start pages - Microsoft wants to use it as a homepage for their properties (including search) and a directory; whereas Google is more focused on searching and ranking widgets (although to be fair, they also obviously want to drive traffic to their properties). But for all these companies, I'm expecting start pages to evolve more to one where widgets can interact and also communicate with non-PC apps (like TV or mobile) - and also become more like productivity tools, as Tariq said.