Monday, February 6, 2012

A Home Page, Start Page, or Toolbar to Open Favorites/Bookmarks and Start Programs

My Firefox bookmarks ("favorites," in Internet Explorer) had grown into a mess, over the years.  In a separate project, I had begun the process of emptying out the bookmarks folder and saving the bookmarks as URL link files.  At some point, maybe my Bookmarks folder would be uncluttered enough that I could go into Firefox's Bookmarks menu and move quickly to the desired link.  But in the meantime, I wondered whether there was another way to set up quick access to key websites.  This post describes the steps I took to set up that kind of arrangement.

Deciding on a Webpage

My first approach was to set up a webpage that would contain those links to other webpages.  For this purpose, the first question was, where would this homepage be located?  I had previously set up homepages on Yahoo! and other similar websites.  I found those pages somewhat inflexible.  But that had been some years earlier.  I thought that maybe I should take another look.  A good commercial homepage could have the advantage of incorporating features (e.g., nice appearance, news tickers) that I wouldn't know how to create.

A search led to and Mashable reviews of some personalized start pages.  Both of those reviews mentioned Netvibes, iGoogle, Pageflakes, MyYahoo, Webwag, Inbox, and Protopage.  Mashable listed several others as well.  No doubt there were many additional possibilities not mentioned in either review.  The two reviews seemed to agree that, among these seven possibilities, Inbox was not a serious contender, MyYahoo was somewhat limited, and the top competitors were Netvibes and Pageflakes, with the rest having good functionality and some worthy special features.

I didn't expect to be needing anything special from this homepage, so a detailed investigation seemed unnecessary.  It appeared reasonable to narrow my focus pretty quickly to Netvibes and Pageflakes.  A search suggested that a number of others had reached the same conclusion.  Joshua Price considered it a choice between those two and iGoogle, and posed a good question:  did I want a homepage that would be larded down with all kinds of gadgets, or something that would load quickly?  Obviously, the latter, given my interest in having something that would be comparable to the Bookmarks folder.

Did that mean I couldn't have a fancy homepage?  I decided the solution would be to focus on getting a homepage with basic functionality, and it could include a link to my snazzy Netvibes or Pageflakes homepage.  But I decided to go ahead and write up, in this paragraph, a bit more about what I was learning in this area.  Mr Price and others seemed inclined to favor Netvibes for being more fully developed, apparently less inclined toward service interruptions, and (for my purposes) somehow more similar to a feed reader.

So I decided to start with Netvibes.  I signed up for their free Basic service (as distinct from their Premium option at $499/month) and chose their Default dashboard.  It took a moment to build itself and then gave me a little tutorial.  It said my page could have apps, blogs, and news.  As an example of an app, they showed me a New York magazine mini-page, in a box filling much of the visible part of the webpage.  It said I could have tabs; for instance, this New York thing was on my General tab (my only one, so far).  It said I could create additional dashboards, and I could switch between Widget and Reader views.  They took their sweet time sending me the confirmation email, and when I looked into it, their webpage seemed kind of screwed up.  I sent their webmaster a note.

Conceptualizing the Start Page

While the Netvibes process was underway, I moved ahead with the main project:  setting up a fast homepage that could include a link to my Netvibes page.  There were several options.  I could have just used a Show Desktop button and put the desired links on my desktop, but I didn't want to have to lose sight of the stuff onscreen.  I could have used a free website hosting site to set up a simple HTML page somewhere online, and add links to that.  I decided the best approach might be to have an HTML page stored right on my computer, and then link to that.

It seemed, in other words, that I should distinguish two different kinds of homepages.  There was the homepage that I hoped to set up on Netvibes, or that some people would set up on Facebook or elsewhere.  This could be a potentially public presentation of myself; whether public or semi-private, it could contain a list of my interests or key links or photos.  I would call this a homepage in the sense that, as far as other people (and possibly I, myself) were concerned, this was my home base, the place where people could go to find me.

I was after a different sort of thing.  What I was trying to build at this point was a start page, like the "Firefox Start" page that I would get if I clicked on the houselike "home" icons on the Firefox browsers.  (Chrome used a similar icon.)  Firefox and Internet Explorer unwittingly implied the misfit of this "home" metaphor by allowing users to designate multiple "home" pages, when people do not usually have multiple homes.  I did seem that "start" pages would have been more accurate.

As Wikipedia observed, the "home" and "start" terms were used in different ways by different people and programs.  The terminology I planned to use would distinguish the "home" page -- a potentially cluttered affair that I (and perhaps others) would hang out in, leave open, or return to -- from the "start" page, where I would go to start programs or otherwise follow links.

The Start Page, as I saw it, could be saved on and connected with my customized Start Menu.  For instance, the Start Page could have links to frequently-used programs as well as to webpages.  It could be saved in a special format whose default browser would be something other than Firefox, Chrome, or Internet Explorer, for which I had developed other roles.  For instance, if my Start Page were saved as an MHT page, and if I named Opera (or, better, some minimalist browser) as my default MHT browser, perhaps I could open my Start Page, and run things from there, without losing sight of what I was doing in Firefox.  Possibly I could use the Start Page in different ways on different desktops.  There were probably more things that I could do with the Start Page, but this seemed like a good starting concept.

Creating My Start Page

What I seemed to need was an HTML (or similar format) webpage, saved in my Start Menu, to which I could point my browsers (e.g., in Firefox, the menu pick would be Tools > Options > General tab).  The first question was, how should I create that webpage?

One way was to use Firefox (Bookmarks > Show All Bookmarks > Import and Backup > Export Bookmarks to HTML) or some other program that would convert a set of Bookmarks or Favorites into an HTML page.  I didn't like that solution.  In the past, that route had not required me to edit or manage the list of bookmarks.  No matter how many there were, I could just put them onto an HTML page, where the clutter would overwhelm me.  Often it would be faster to just do a new Google search for where that webpage was.  And that's how my old collection of bookmarks fell into disuse.  Too much of a good thing.

At this point, I wanted to grow a new Start Page with only the things that really needed to be there -- including perhaps some things that wouldn't normally be found in a Bookmarks menu.
To get a simple HTML page that would be accessible from multiple browsers -- indeed, from Windows Explorer and wherever I might want to put a shortcut -- I took the advice to paste something like this into Notepad:

<title>My Start Page</title>
<p><a href="">CNN</a></p>
The "a href" part would give me a link to CNN's webpage.  As this example shows, my HTML page would have two parts.  After the introductory line, telling the computer that it was an HTML page, the page would have a head and a body, each beginning with the appropriate tag (e.g., <head>) and ending with the pre-slashed version (e.g., </head>).  I would add the <p> tag to indicate a paragraph, so that there would be a bit of space between lines.

Among the endless things that I could learn about HTML, the only other thing I needed right now was to know how to add a link to a program on my computer.  I found, using Firefox as an example, that if I went into File > Open File, I could browse to a folder and open various kinds of files.  If I tried to open a DOC file, for instance, Firefox would open an empty tab and would offer to open the DOC in Microsoft Word, my default program for DOC files.  The empty tab would have the address of the file, in this format:
So the HTML line needed to open that file, in a customized Start Page, would be like this:
<p><a href="file:///D:/Folder/Filename.doc">Open Filename</a></p>
But for some types of programs, Firefox would start the program in its own tab, instead of starting up the Windows default program (e.g., Word, for DOCs).  For instance, when I tried to start a WAV file, it played in the Firefox tab, without opening IrfanView, my default WAV player.  One suggestion was to add a "target" specification.  For my purposes, that line read like this:
<p><a href="file:///D:/Current/Test.wav" target="_blank">Open the Test WAV File</a></p>
I saved the Notepad file as "TestHTML.html" and navigated to it in Firefox > Open File.  The HTML page opened successfully, the link to CNN worked, and the link to the Test WAV File gave me an option to open that file in IrfanView (or some other program) or save it.  So that worked.  I now knew most of what I needed for a basic Start Page.

Finally, I wanted my Start Page to have links that would open Windows Explorer (not Internet Explorer).  I would want a WinEx session to open up and go directly to a certain specified folder.  I figured I would use something like file:///D:/Folder.  Unfortunately, this was apparently no longer possible, for security reasons.  There did seem to be alternative ways to work toward the same result.  Aside from a programming solution, I could get to a special folder by making a shortcut to it, and sticking that shortcut on the desktop or Start Menu, or by pinning it to the taskbar, or maybe by finding a WinEx alternative or installing a WinEx add-on with Favorites and other capabilities.

Pending further investigation, it looked like I might have to take a roundabout approach to add a bookmark, to Firefox, that would open a Windows Explorer session.  The approach I saw would start with making a shortcut to that folder, using Windows Explorer.  Then I would put that shortcut in my Internet Explorer Favorites folder (C:\Users\Ray\Favorites, where "Ray" is the username); and then I would import my IE Favorites into Firefox.  I would take this route through Internet Explorer because it used a folder to contain its bookmarks, and I could add a folder shortcut to that folder; but Firefox's bookmarks were apparently stored within a single file.)

I could refine the Start Page as time and circumstances dictated. For instance, I had noticed, one time, that I could copy and paste a table from Excel (or probably Word) into an HTML page, thereby creating a table in HTML, without actually knowing how to program a table in HTML. A table would be handy if I found I had lots of links, and wanted to have several columns of them on my Start Page. I could create an HTML table by using the compositional tools available right here in a draft blog post on paste the table into the draft post in Compose mode, and then switch to the Edit HTML tab to see the HTML code. Then I could probably then copy that HTML code out to Notepad. In fact, I might be able to keep a permanent draft of my Start Page as a draft here in Blogger, or as an HTML file that I would edit with a freeware HTML editor.

As I looked into this further, I began to realize there were quite a few alternatives.  I could have used some of the foregoing insights to pursue the possibility of using C:\Users\Ray\Favorites as my Start Page.  The idea would be that opening a new tab or otherwise invoking the Firefox Start Page would open a Windows Explorer session focused on C:\Users\Ray\Favorites, where I could put links and shortcuts to all sorts of webpages, folders, and programs.  Another possibility was to create a new toolbar and put icons on it for various websites, programs, and folders.  In all of these options, there were various combinations of ease of use, maintenance, portability, backup, and screen space.

Considering the Toolbar Approach

To my surprise, at this point the HTML homepage concept looked less appealing than a toolbar with the desired links.  I had used toolbars in the olden days -- in Windows 98, possibly, or maybe early in Windows XP -- and this research reminded me of some of the advantages of that approach.  If toolbars still worked the same, I could base the toolbar in my customized Start Menu, thereby making it portable and insuring that it would be backed up frequently; I could set it to auto-hide, so that I wouldn't lose screen real estate; and if all went well, there wouldn't be much maintenance involved:  just put the desired icons in the desired folder and maybe do a bit of rearrangement onscreen.  I also wouldn't have to be using a web browser to have immediate access to the various links that I would have put onto the HTML Start Page, and I wouldn't have to be fishing around in Windows Explorer to use its Favorites.

It was gradually becoming obvious that I really didn't need to be worrying about starting programs from my HTML Start Page or my toolbar.  That was the purpose of the Start Menu.  Where I was interested in having quick access to a particular file, I could include a link to the appropriate folder on the Start Menu.  So at this point it seemed that all I would have on the toolbar would be links to webpages and folders.

The toolbar setup process seemed to be very similar to the process years earlier:  right-click on an empty space on the taskbar (mine was crowded, so I had to grab a tiny edge of it) and choose Toolbars > New toolbar > designate the folder where I would be putting the shortcuts and such.  I decided to set up two toolbars:  Webpages and Folders.  Those two words now appeared on the Taskbar.  I wanted the folders to be on the left edge of the screen, not the bottom, so I tried dragging one of them over there.  This didn't work, with either mouse button.  Some users reported that, in Windows 7, Microsoft removed the ability to drag toolbars away from the taskbar.  That seemed consistent with what I was getting from my search generally.

The problem with a toolbar at the bottom of the screen was that the taskbar was already cluttered.  I could have tried to set it to two rows, but it made no sense to narrow my screen vertically even more, when I had horizontal space to spare.  I thought maybe Microsoft's concept was that I would use their Sidebar instead of a toolbar on the side, but I wasn't seeing obvious ways to add links to files, folders, and programs to the Sidebar.  It seemed more oriented toward stuffing my desktop with gadgets that would take up space and consume system resources.

The RocketDock Alternative

I searched for ways to do more with the Sidebar, and what I found instead was RocketDock, one of many third-party applications whose purpose seemed at least approximately what I might be looking for.  RocketDock appeared to be much-loved.  Sadly, though, it was not yet supported on 64-bit Windows. 

ObjectDock, an alternative, was actually even more highly rated on CNET.  I downloaded, installed, and ran it.  As expected, it added a Mac-style row of large, colorful icons across the bottom of the screen.  I was able to adjust it so that it was a small, auto-hiding bar on the left edge of the screen.  I tried dragging a folder from Windows Explorer onto the ObjectDock (OD) bar.  That didn't seem to accomplish anything.  Likewise when I tried to drag a JPG onto it.  I went looking for guidance.  I didn't see a manual on their support page.  Apparently my main option at this point was to go digging around in the support forum. It seemed like a lame way to begin.  I searched for a user's guide.  One page said that what I had done should have worked:  "To add more icons, click and hold a program icon then move it to a dock then release it."  Ah, but I hadn't tried to add a program icon.  I'd tried to add folder and file icons.  Could I not use ObjectDock to open specific programs or files?  I wanted to to back into the program to make sure I hadn't missed something, when I was looking for its built-in help information; but now that I had set ObjectDock not to always be on top, I couldn't find it.  There was no ObjectDock icon in either the system tray or the taskbar, and moving my mouse to where OD had been, last time I checked, achieved nothing.  Alt-Tab likewise revealed nothing.  I minimized Firefox, and there it was.  It had been hiding under Firefox.  I was running out of time for this project, so I just posted a question in the ObjectDock forum, asking where I could find a user's guide.

Meanwhile, in my travels, I had seen where someone said that RocketDock was not supported for x64, but that this didn't mean it didn't work on x64 machines.  The post said that a lot of 64-bit Windows users were using RocketDock.  So I went back to that and installed it.  I liked how its auto-hide feature made its toolbar slide out from the right side of the monitor, like I expected.  I was able to slide icons for a folder, an AVI, a JPG, and an XLS spreadsheet onto its toolbar, open those files from those icons, and remove the icons.  Exactly what I was looking for.

Now, how could I use RocketDock to make frequently used web links readily available?  A folder seemed to be the answer.  The specific need that had prompted me to start this investigation was that I often did searches in this blog, and in many cases I had to go out to Google for those searches (rather than use the search box at the top of webpages like this one) because I wanted to do a customized search that might have more search options than would fit in that search box.  It was a small task, with a bit of typing, but I did it often enough that I wanted a way to make it faster and easier.  I suspected there were more tasks like it, within my day's work at the keyboard.

I created a Special Searches subfolder in the Online folder in my Start Menu.  I ran the general-form search that I would do in this website.  This search contained only the specification that the search would be limited to this particular site.  Now, if I could get this search to run from an icon, all I would have to do, once it came up, would be to add the specific terms that I was searching for in this site.

So I had the search I wanted to save.  I went to the colored icon or space inside the left end of its address bar, and dragged that URL over to the Special Searches subfolder that I had open in Windows Explorer.  I would add other searches there later, but for now the next step was to put this Special Searches subfolder onto the RocketDock toolbar.  So I dragged the folder icon over from Internet Explorer to the toolbar and tried it out.  I had to do it twice, but it worked.

It seemed that I might be using the RocketDock toolbar often, once I got onto it.  The only other thing I added to it, at this point, was a folder containing shortcuts to frequently opened folders.  So now, instead of having to dig down in Windows Explorer to a particular folder, I could just click the Frequently Opened Folders icon on the RocketDock toolbar.  That would open up a Windows Explorer session, opened to the Frequently Opened Folders folder.  There, I would see the shortcuts that I had put there, leading directly to those various buried folders.  So within a couple of clicks I would be at my destination.

This was as far as I went with the RocketDock concept at this point.  I figured I would need some time to play with it and see how things developed.  Maybe there would be important new uses; maybe it would prove to be a minor addition.  I hoped that I had not invested all this time in a trivial pursuit.  It was not always easy to predict where this sort of inquiry would end up.  I certainly had come quite a ways from my original notion of using a Start Page to accomplish the desired outcome.



Received this message:

"So, how did it go? I'm also looking for a good web startpage - one that I can log in like iGoogle and use anywhere I go. iGoogle seems a bit outdated at the moment and many of the apps are not functioning as well as they claim. I'm currently trying out Tizit because they allow me to link all my emails into one page. That's kinda what I wanted - like Mail on iPhone. Do keep us posted."

I'm posting it in this format because the commenter included his/her email. I was afraid s/he would get spammed, so I left that off. S/he can resend if that really was the intent.

To answer the question, I used RocketDock for a while, but didn't seem to really need it, and haven't yet revisited this topic.