Monday, February 02, 2009

An update on Pageflakes

It’s again been a very long time that I wrote something here, and an even longer time that I wrote about Pageflakes or about what I’ve been doing since I left the company about a year ago. I did become a reasonably active Twitterer in the meantime though – the 140 character format is probably better suited for my literal talent! Anyway, I thought it’s time for a quick update.

One of my last blog posts about Pageflakes was about my attempt to convince Mike Arrington and Pete Cashmore that Pageflakes was the Next Big Thing, my goal for 2006 as I put it (half joke, half serious). While both of them were very skeptical about the whole thing in the beginning, Pete wrote a very favorable posting about us in October 2006. Convincing Mike was more difficult but he got more and more positive over time as well, covering our 2.0 relaunch as well as release “Flurry” and “Blizzard” (thanks, Dan, for introducing a nicer release terminology!).

With each of our major releases we made it easier to create a personalized page and to get all the best the Web has to offer on one page. I think we also raised the bar for the whole category of personalized homepages with each release. This is the result of a huge team effort, which the whole Pageflakes team can be very proud of, especially if you consider that our most important competitors were iGoogle, MyYahoo and (vastly better-funded) Netvibes.

Nevertheless, although we did get more and more users who loved Pageflakes and used it as their very own entry point to the Internet and did get considerable mindshare, especially in the Web 2.0 community, we (and the whole market, for that matter) never grew as fast as we hoped. One of the reasons was that as much as we tried to make the product as easy-to-use as possible, the barrier to adoption was still a tad too high for many users. Creating your personal page just never got as easy as watching a video on YouTube. YouTube offers users instant gratification. Your own Pageflakes page may provide you more value in the long term, but getting there also takes a little longer. Likewise, although we had considerable success in redefining the product category of personalized startpages into a more "social" one, Pageflakes never got (and never could get) as social as, say, MySpace. Although hundreds of thousands of users created an extremely diverse variety of Pagecasts and shared them with their friends or with the general public, the majority of our users just enjoyed their pages privately. That didn’t come as a surprise, of course – Pageflakes falls under the 90/9/1 rule whereas you have to connect with friends on social networking sites.

We did hope that the product would get more viral and social though, and in order to become the next Yahoo! (our slightly ambitious stated goal when we started at the end of 2005) we would have needed higher organic growth rates (ironically, if Yahoo! continues to fare as badly as it did in the last months, we can still become the next Yahoo! ;-) ). So when 2007 turned to a close, we had an award-winning product with a loyal user base that was growing but wasn’t big enough and wasn’t growing fast enough in order to monetize the service effectively in the near term. Around the same time, the appetite of VCs to fund companies like ours started to decrease, resulting in worsened terms for startups. In that situation, we thought our best choice was to partner with a large player that has a huge amount of users.

Many know the rest of the story: In April 2008 we got acquired by LiveUniverse, the new media company of MySpace founder Brad Greenspan. Unfortunately our initial enthusiasm about the deal started to fade away quickly since Pageflakes quickly started to suck. First just a little (no more new features), then more and more (bad customer service, sudden introduction of obtrusive ads on users’ pages without any communication, downtimes), and the last dark climax was an outage of about four days without any communication from LiveUniverse to its users, causing a ton of understandable complaints of Pageflakes users on Twitter. It took me a long time to admit this publicly and I really don’t like to badmouth the company that bought Pageflakes, but it’s time for me to say sorry to all Pageflakes users. If a super loyal Pageflakes user like Phil Bradley has to write a blog post like this, you know that you have crossed a line. Phil has been using Pageflakes for years and wouldn’t leave the service light-mindedly. But enough is enough – his post says it all.

As of right now, Pageflakes is up again but because of the almost complete lack of communication on behalf of LiveUniverse I don’t know how long it’ll stay up and running. The company told CNet's Webware on Friday that the downtime was due to a data center migration but I don’t know if it’s true. Other reports indicate that they are in trouble. I’ll continue to use Pageflakes for now and will keep my fingers crossed that LiveUniverse will change course. If you do have to shut down the service, dear Brad Greenspan, please give the users at least two weeks’ notice to save their data and move to another service. There are many legitimate reasons why a company can fail or why a service needs to be shut down. But you really have to make sure that users get a chance to save their valuable data. Failure to do this is not only puts Pageflakes users in trouble, it also undermines users' trust in the cloud in general. Thank you.
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