MasterNewMedia
Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi
 


Monday, July 2, 2007

Content Aggregation: Create Your Start Page Via Drag And Drop - Zude

Content aggregation is about to get even easier with the launch of a new service that lets you to drag-and-drop content from any website - or even your desktop - to create your own customized web pages. Get ready to remix the web.

zude_header.jpg

Content aggregation and the start page concept have evolved considerably in recent times, with contenders like PageFlakes, Netvibes and YourMinis providing easy ways to gather web content together in a single, easy-to-access space.

The idea is simple - when you hit the web, you land on a page that has all of your favorite content gathered together and waiting for you. Rather than having to surf off in ten different directions, you bring the key content from your trusted list of websites right to you, all at once.

Through a combination of RSS, web widgets and very often a fusion of the two, it has become very simple to gather and interact with the web without having to laboriously visit every website you want to access. You simply set up news feeds to bring in the latest updates, embed YouTube players to watch video on your terms, and even insert your own chat room or poll tool to interact with your friends and site visitors.

Facebook has seen an enormous amount of success by allowing third-party developers to write hundreds of applications for its platform. But what if you could drag and drop widgets from anywhere into your own start page or personal profile, or grab images, videos and text from the web and easily place it into your own custom designs?

Zude thinks it has the answer.

Zude Overview

zude_logo.jpg

Zude - which is still in private beta at the time of writing - positions itself as something between a start page, web authoring and social networking destination. Far and away its key feature is the ability to drag-and-drop content from your desktop, or other websites, directly into your customized Zude pages. This is somewhat of a giant leap given that you don't have to rely on any given infrastructure or service limitations to make use of the thousands of web widgets, images, videos and other content floating around the web.

So if you want to grab a widget from Widgetbox, a photo from Flickr and a video from YouTube and quickly place them onto a customized backdrop, you came to the right place. It really is as simple as dragging the embed code, image, highlighted text or whatever else it is you want to import from the source window and right onto your Zude page.

In the case of an image, it is as easy as that.The image will appear on your page, ready to be resized and repositioned to taste. With widgets, the same simplicity applies.

But what's cool is that you can also import entire web pages, and by dragging the URL into your Zude page you are presented with a choice of how you would like to import the content - as an RSS feed, a full-page rendering of the website, an embedded version of the web-page or even a button linking directly back to the source page.

Zude gives you the chance to quickly and easily bring in all kinds of content (dealing with intellectual property issues falls on your own conscience) and quickly remix it into new pages. As such it serves as nice way to aggregate content whether for your own research or future reference, or to share with friends.



Integrated Content

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You aren't, however, limited to just using the content you choose to magpie from around the web. Zude also features a good range of integrated content and a selection of authoring tools that you can use to create your pages right from within the application.

An included image library, for instance, makes it easy to choose from a range of background graphics and tiled patterns, just as you would on your computer desktop. Furthermore, you can add in emoticons from a reasonably vast library, and it looks as though featured content, such as film tie-ins and other licensed materials, will play a significant role as the platform evolves.

You can also run searches or access content from a range of services, such as Google and Flickr, directly from the Image Library pop-up, giving you an easy way to find images to quickly drag and drop onto your pages.

Further to the images and backgrounds available, you have a good choice of 'objects' at your disposal, and create them literally by dragging and dropping the item of your choice directly from the following menu:

zude_add_object.jpg

As you can see, this gives you a simple way to create or import text-based, image-based and web-based content without having to drag-and-drop it in from another website. Should you not wish to install the optional Firefox / IE plugin required for dragging and dropping, this alternative means of content sourcing and creation is still available to you.

For a service that places simplicity as one of its key features, however, I have to say that I found several of the content creation objects somewhat counterintuitive. Nothing that prevented me from creating headlines, text and notes, but nevertheless something I would have a hard time introducing my grandmother to.

The key issue I had is that to perform the most rudimentary editing, even of text, I first have to right-click on the content, access a contextual menu and edit the parameters of the object by opening up a new dialog box. I can understand how this might be necessary with content such as video, where a URL might need supplying, or other parameters tweaking, but when it comes to basic text editing, this could be simpler.

Yes, you can edit the font, size, alignment and color of your text using the dialog box. But it would be nice if I could just click on a text box and start writing, replacing the place-holder text with my own. That would be intuitive. Having to enter a new dialog just to edit text just feels a little clunky to me, and detracts from the overall usability of the service.

It's great that I can drag-and-drop content - that kind of ease-of-use is just what makes Zude a pleasure to use. I would just like to see the same commitment to simplicity applied throughout the authoring cycle.



Importing Content

zude_feeds.jpg

Of course what Zude does best is importing content from around the web, and this really is for the most part a simple and pleasurable task. As soon as you have your Internet Explorer or Firefox plugin installed, you are ready to start grabbing content wheresoever you go on the web.

Seen a cool video? Drag the embed code onto your Zude page and watch it appear there. Want to make note of something somebody said in their blog? Simply highlight the text and drag it over to your page. Want to create an RSS aggregator right in your page? Drag the RSS feed, or even the website URL over to your Zude page and the option is yours. You will instantly be given a Zude widget displaying all of the latest RSS news headlines.

This can be pretty addictive let it be said, and for the most part it works a charm. I did have some moments where the odd image didn't want to be imported, or a video took a number of tries before it appeared, but by and large this was a seamless experience, and is what really sets Zude apart from the nearest competition.

Zude makes for an impressive web-remixing, content-ripping aggregation tool if nothing else.

Further to the drag-and-drop and menu-operated import, you can also bring in files and content from your local computer using a simple dialog box. If you have installed the optional browser plugin, however, you can streamline this process by dragging files right in from your desktop. I had some difficulties with several file types, but again, this is largely a very effective way to bring content to the web.



Page Parameters

Zude allows you to create as many pages as you like, so that unlike MySpace or Facebook you are not limited to a single profile page into which you need to shoehorn all of your content.

zude_properties.jpg

You can create and embed your own profile, and can send and receive messages just as you would in other social networking services. Unlike these services, however, Zude allows you much greater control over access privileges to the pages your create. Pages can be public or private, and you can also let the application know who should be allowed access, as you might in Google Docs and Spreadsheets.

This will be of particular interest to those using the service as a notebook or scrapbook rather than a public facing social networking profile or personal homepage.

Nevertheless, there is a strong degree of aesthetic control available, allowing you to set background by color or image, apply one of several 'skins' and other customization options that make each of your pages unique to you.

zude_page_ratings.jpg

Should you decide to open your pages to the public, you can also gather feedback on your content in the form of star-ratings, and also suggest the appropriate audience for your pages, much as you might expect from a movie. Classifying your site as suitable for family viewing, or adults only not only helps users searching within the Zude network, but also prevents young and impressionable minds from accessing content unsuitable for them.



Interface and Usability

zude_rg_tv.jpg

With a bit of work you can customize the look of your pages, content-objects and widgets to a reasonably flexible degree, producing collections of pages that look good and manage to serve a number of functions all at once. I say 'with a bit of work' because it isn't difficult to get the hang of the Zude interface once you have spent some time in its company, and figured out the way it hangs together.

Nevertheless, this does suggest that in terms of usability Zude is still a way off being totally intuitive, totally easy-to-use, and as accessible as claims of 'your grandmother could use it' might suggest. As I have said, the extensive use of dialog boxes, right-click contextual menus and at times technical jargon and errors appearing means for me that a little bit more field testing would go a long way.

The big question for me is as to who Zude is primarily being targeted at. We are told that this is a service that everyone from grandma to tech-savvy hackers will find a use for, and while I have expressed my doubts about the former, I also wonder if the latter is entirely on the mark.

The key issue is one of function. Does Zude want to be a MySpace and Facebook contender? Is it aiming at cracking the start page field open? Is it gunning for a web 2.0 take on Geocities - personalized homepages for hobbyists and individuals? Or maybe it is entering the territory of Zoho Notebook and its Google counterpart?

Some would argue that it refuses to fall into any of these niches, but the danger there is that its function may become too blurred to attract a significant user-base. Just as the ability to bring in content from anywhere may prove more daunting than choosing it from an edited library, so being able to use Zude for anything may ultimately mean that uptake is slow. I hope that this isn't the case, as Zude has a lot to offer.



The Competition

pageflakes.jpg

With that said it is difficult to pin down the exact competition for Zude and the market that it is attempting to carve a niche for itself within. Briefly, I would sum up its chief competitors as:

  • Start page services such as PageFlakes, NetVibes and YourMinis, none of which allow open drag-and-dropping of content, but all of which have significantly more usable, better looking interfaces
  • Social networking services such as MySpace and Facebook, which offer far less in the way of customization, but a far more established user-base and, in the case of Facebook, a great selection of third-party apps categorized, sorted and ready to run
  • Notebook services such as Google Notebook and Zoho Notebook which present a less public-facing experience, but in some ways comparable web-content aggregation ability, along with simple interface design

To this list I would have to add the range of content publishing platforms now available to users, which have moved on significantly from the days of personal homepages and their out-of-the-can equivalent GeoCities. As a content publishing platform, Zude has a lot more in common with Geocities and its ilk than it has with blogging, which has redefined the way we publish web media in many ways.

That is more than a little unfair, given that these web 1.0 technologies were closed content silos with very limited import abilities. But my key point is that as an aggregation tool Zude is great, but as a final publishing destination, it leaves something to be desired, with its focus on the creation of 'pages'.

What this leads me to personally believe is that Zude is at its strongest when competing with notebook and start page services, given that it in many ways makes progress in the feature-sets of both of these genres. As a social networking service, the community features of Zude feel somewhat tacked-on to the excellent aggregation tools at its heart. As a publishing platform it feels a little too much like 1995. But as a sharing, collaboration, data gathering and brainstorming tool it really shines.

I would suggest forgetting about grandma and focusing on the kind of people that can really make use of these key, growth technologies.



Tech Specs and Access

At the time of writing Zude requires either Firefox 1.5 or higher, or Internet Explorer version 6 or higher to run.

Operating system support includes Windows NT, XP and Vista, Mac OSX and Linux.

The application performs a compatibility test on your system on first use, and requires that you allow cookies, turn off your pop-up filter and install a browser plugin to enable drag-and-drop capabilities.

Zude uses banner advertising at the bottom of each page in its free addition. Premium users will be able to pay "less than $30 a year" to remove this advertising, which seems reasonably cheap and would make a considerable difference to the screen real estate available.

Zude is currently in closed beta and is due to be released very soon. For those anxious to get started right away, you can find an early-access code at the bottom of Phil Butler's recent Read / Write Web review, which for the impatient among you is "zude me".



Conclusions

Zude does a great job of taking the idea of the start page and opening it up to the full range of content featured on the web. In the age of portable data and web widgets, that makes for a huge array of rich, multimedia content that you can easily drag-and-drop into new and limitless combinations.

This is in many ways a huge step forward, allowing users to leverage the full range of web widgets available without having to worry about issues of compatibility, inclusion within the infrastructure of a given service, or even having to place an "embed code" into the right part of their blog or website. Google Gadgets will at last sit comfortably next to Yahoo Widgets without any problem at all.

Nevertheless, if I were to pretend that the drag-and-drop approach taken by Zude makes it a piece of cake to use I wouldn't be telling the whole truth. As it stands Zude still has an interface that is both glitchy and slightly geeky. Contrary to what Zude would have you believe, this isn't something your grandmother would feel comfortable using.

There is a lot of dependence on opening up right-click-based contextual menus to action even the most basic editing of content, for instance. With text, as an example, it would be far more intuitive to be able to click on the placeholder content and edit it right away, rather than having to open a new dialog-box and do things the long way round. In general the interface and interaction one has with it tend to err on the side of the long-winded, and hopefully this will be addressed in future.

Slight usability issues aside, however, Zude offers an impressively open platform for those looking to aggregate content from around the web by simply dragging text, photos, videos and widgets into their personal web pages.

If that sounds like it might be of interest to you, Zude is well worth checking out.



Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about Zude, you may want to check out the following links:




Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Content Aggregation: Create Your Start Page Via Drag And Drop - Zude

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posted by Michael Pick on Monday, July 2 2007, updated on Friday, February 26 2010


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