Pageflakes announced its latest version, nicknamed Blizzard. It introduces social networking functionality, themes, a slick Ajax UI, and more. What struck me about the new look was how much it reminded me of Facebook, or at least how much it wants to be like Facebook. The same can be said of Netvibes, Pageflakes' main competitor. I wondered: does this mean that Pageflakes and Netvibes are moving away from the 'start page' market (which has intense competition from MyYahoo, Microsoft's Live.com and iGoogle) and more into the social networking / widgets domain currently dominated by MySpace and Facebook? Josh Catone wrote about this trend at the end of May, in a post entitled Who Can Compete with Facebook?. He wrote:Last week the personalized start page
"Both Netvibes and Pageflakes already act as platforms, with sophisticated developers APIs for creating widgets and programs to interact with their users. Both companies allow users to customize their pages, and inject personality into them. Both companies also already encourage users to share their creations (Universes and Pagecasts). Perhaps, the next step beyond sharing should be interaction."
This is precisely what Pageflakes has done in its latest version - created social networking interaction. I'll get back to the bigger question later in this post (which is: can Pageflakes and Netvibes compete with Facebook?), but first let's check out the new features in Pageflakes.
There's no doubt that Pageflakes Blizzard has greatly improved its UI. The big shiny gold menu button on the top-right makes it very easy to add new widgets (a.k.a. flakes) and content to your page. I did notice a few navigation issues - for example adding an RSS feed to your page wasn't as intuitive as before (you need to click 'Browse Flakes' in the menu, then there is a small 'Add RSS feed' option at the bottom; but if you click 'Browse All Flakes' you get taken to a new page which doesn't have the 'Add RSS feed' option?). But these are minor issues, compared to the attractive UI and themes that users get to play with.
To test the new features, I created a new Pagecast called Richard MacManus' Page. This is basically a Pageflakes page featuring some of my favorite feeds and widgets, which I have shared with the world. Another nice feature is that you don't have to start from scratch, but can copy another person's Pagecast. I used Mike Arrington's Pagecast as a template, to create this:
Read/WriteWeb also has a Netvibes Universe, which was custom made for us recently. But to be honest, the Pageflakes one looks more slick.
Competing with Facebook
In both Pageflakes and Netvibes, there are some good widgets to choose from - although it has to be said that Facebook has a much larger selection than both start pages. That's because Facebook has enjoyed a huge amount of third party developer interest in its platform, allowing the 30 million + Facebook users to choose virtually any widget they want. It isn't quite as easy in Pageflakes or Netvibes. For example I wanted to add a last.fm widget to my Pagecast, but there wasn't one. Same for Netvibes. Whereas on Facebook, there are at least 7 last.fm widgets to choose from.
And therein lies the problem for both Pageflakes and Netvibes. To compete with Facebook as a social network, they need to attract third party developers - and quickly.
The other main feature, other than widgets, which makes a Facebook-like social network is profiles. Here is my profile. My main suggestion to Pageflakes here is to make 'people discovery' easier and related to things like interests and hobbies. Right now it seems you can only add new people by manually clicking through to their profile (via search or clicking on their profile link on their Pagecast etc). Although having said that, when I clicked through to Dan Cohen's (Pageflakes CEO) page, I saw a 'People with similar interests' pane - which wasn't on my page. So perhaps it takes a little bit of browsing around to get that onto your own profile.
Pageflakes has taken the next step from being just a start page, by adding social networking functionality. Netvibes hasn't yet gone that far, but I suspect it's coming soon.
However there's still a lot of work to be done by both start pages to catch up to Facebook or even MySpace - and that's purely down to number of third party widgets and of course number of users on the network. So while I agree with Josh that start pages will challenge the existing social networks - it's almost evolutionary for them to become social networks - it will need a big influx of developers and users before they're truly competitive in that space.
Disclosure: Pageflakes is a R/WW sponsor