pageflakes

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A few clouds darkened on the Internet late last week. According to Cnet, Pageflakes and Revver abruptly went off line Thursday followed by Magnolia on Friday. PageFlakes is an ajax widget based personal portal and Revver is a video sharing site. Both are owned by Liveuniverse. Magnolia is a social bookmarking site.

On Friday, Liveuniverse claimed that the outage was due to a server migration and that they would be back online within a few hours. A few hours turned into several days with Pageflakes finally returning to service on Monday morning. Liveuniverse’s story is difficult to believe. First, if one is anticipating a server migration, then one should warn users ahead of time, or at least publish some sort of explanation while it is down. Liveuniverse did none of that.

Magnolia offered the explanation that they had experienced a severe database failure, and it would be some time before they were back up and that they were unsure how much would be recovered.

Clearly, both sites are on the ropes. Liveuniverse’s mistakes are outlined in Phil Bradley’s blog. A series of outages has users fleeing Pageflakes. Magnolia clearly did not have an adequate backup plan in place something essential to any cloud computing platform.

This gets back to the point of one of my earlier blog posts on cloud solutions. You cannot rely upon them with your content as has been clearly demonstrated by recent events.

What can you do? The first thing I would do as a Pageflakes user is get your stuff off this site while you still have a chance. I guess you could recreate your portal be placing your widgets, links, and feeds to another site such as iGoogle or NetVibes, but who is to say they may not abruptly pull up stakes?

I have another suggestion—do it yourself. Spring for cheap webhosting that does backups. It costs little, is easy to do, puts you in control. Portaneo, a French firm offers Posh, a free open source ajax based web portal. As a Magnolia replacement, consider Pligg a social boomarking platform, again free and open source.

For schools, these failures coupled with privacy issues should be enough to convince educators of the folly of free cloud computing solutions. Low cost, easy to deploy solutions are out there. They are not absolutely free, but neither are the clouds. The cost is the risk of content and loss of privacy.

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Posh, the open source portal page resembling PageFlakes, comes with a few widgets in its default installation. A handful of other widgets can be found on the Portaneo website. In order to make this software as appealing and as functional as PageFlakes for student, class, or school use, it would be great to have more options. As I discovered there are well over 100,000 options. Google Gadgets and Netvibes Widgets can be implemented as widgets using Posh’s Advanced Widget Wizard.

There is a dizzying array of Google Gadgets and Netvibe Widgets: games, music, video, calendars, clocks, and more. Check them out yourself with the links above. Essentially, they provide little snippets of code that can be added to websites to feed the desired content.

The first step in making the widget is getting the code. First we will look at how to get the code for Google Gadgets. Go to Google’s gadget directory.Note that you can search widgets or browse categories.

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Once you have picked a gadget, click on the “Add to your webpage button.” Usually, you are then given options for customization. What needs to be configured depends upon the gadget. The default width for most is 320 px. That is a little too wide for the default 3 column layout, so you probably want to bump that number down a little. Sometimes you need to enter a little information into the code manually, but it is usually clear and simple.

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You many preview your customization or get code.

Simply copy that code onto your clipboard so that you can paste it into the Widget Wizard.

Now Let’s go and get some code for a Netvibes widget.

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Find the widget of your dreams and click on it:

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You may or may not have configuration options. In this case there are none. To get the code. click on the share button. Grab the text of the code and have it ready to paste into the Widget Wizard.

Now that you have your code, log in as admin on your Posh installation. Click on Widgets Management.

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Click Create a new widget.

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The click Add your advanced widget to get this page:

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Simply paste your code to replace the highlighted text on the page above. Click the test button to make sure it works. If you are successful, click add. (Note, there are links to widgets on the page with an alternative procedure which I found confusing). You will be prompted through the next few pages to name and customize the widget somewhat, and you are done. Your new widget will now appear on the list of options. To make things even more interesting, users can do the same, but their submitted widgets must be approved by an administrator.

Posh certainly caught my attention as a slick open source alternative to hosted solutions. I believe it could be very useful as a student or classroom portal. Now that I discovered a nearly unlimited source of widgets. it is more appealing yet and will undergo more exploration. The widget wizard is a nice implementation that may well be suited to other server side applications. Posh appears to be an open source receptacle for open standard APIs.

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There was a request for an online organizer for a special needs student through which assignments and schedules can be managed. It also needs to allow input or interaction by the student’s resource teacher. PageFlakes came to mind with its slick flexible interface complete with calendars, to-do lists, and rss feeds. The interface would be motivating and the students ability to customize would engender ownership. The problem is the Terms of Service requiring that users be over 13.

I had to search for quite awhile before finding anything that meets these needs. I finally encountered Posh, an open source AJAX powered web portal created by Portaneo. Posh installs through the standard download, unpack, upload routine and is attached to a mySQL database through the web installer. I found the SVN in the repository, but it did not appear to be up to date. Installation went fine, although a whole bunch of cryptic errors were thrown when it created the database. I went on anyway and all appears to work fine.

The administrative interface seemed fine, although the French language appears here and there where they missed translating one thing or another. More on administration in a future post.

Posh comes with a default page view that displays all the default widgets (The original clock displayed in French, I had to hack in the English):

Each of the widgets can be moved by dragging and dropping them to various position of the page falling (by default into 3 columns. Mousing over the header bar of each widget brings up options to configure, refresh, or delete the widget. Starting in the upper left column is the Bookmark widget. Click on Add a Bookmark and you get this:

Type in a name, url, and tags, then click add.

Note the pop down menu that lets you find bookmarks by keyword tags. Very handy if you have many bookmarks!

The next notable widget is the calendar–which goes further in that it is more of a planner/scheduler. Click Add Event:

Give your event a title and add a comment if desired. Dates and time can be set simply. Once added, dates on the calendar with events show in gray. Mouse over the date and the event and time appear. Pretty handy for managing long terms assignments or marking dates of tests, etc.

In the middle column, there is a basic notepad, a decent calculator, and a widget to check your pop email account. I didn’t get the email working, but I didn’t try too hard because I am not really looking for that functionality.

The final column of the default layout includes a To-do list that allows one to enter events and a comment. Mouse over the event and you see the comment. It would be nice if the list linked in some way with the calendar.

The is also an analogue clock and a reasonably functional Contact list.

On  the menu bar to the upper right side of the page is an option to “Add Widget.” Click on that and the following box appears on the left side of the page:

As you can see there are options to add widgets from the library, and most importantly to add rss feeds as widgets. Just type in the rul for the feed and click go. It checks for the feed and if successful it offers to add it to the page (click to enlarge):

Once you tell it to add the widget, it appears on the page. Of course, you can drag and drop it where ever you like.

Click on an article and a beautiful rss reader appear on the page (click to enlarge):

It includes options to view in the reader or in a new window.

There are also more widgets on the portaneo site including Weather, Google Search, gmail, an English/French translator, and more.

There is also an enterprise edition of this software. It attempts to be a sort of intranet social platform. While I haven’t fully explored this variant, I do like the notebook feature which allows a user to keep notes or snippets of web pages on a separate window. I could see this useful for online research couple with the bookmarks and feeds.

Overall, I think Posh will meet our needs. It is a little rough around the edges with French appearing in the English version, a few quirks to the interface, and a few items that don’t yet work as they should. Nonetheless, I will be taking a deeper look into this in the future. I have a feeling this could be very useful in an educational setting.

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