I first discovered Pageflakes a few weeks after it launched towards the end of 2005. For anyone not familiar with it - it's a home or start page - a webpage that loads when you launch your browser. It's possible to add links, search engines, RSS feeds and hundreds of widgets to enhance the time you spend on the web. It's got over 250,000 of these widgets, and people can also publish their own pages directly on the web for other people to view and use - over 130,000 of them in fact.
It was a very smart looking resource - very flexible, very simple to use and highly innovative. While there were other resources around that did much the same thing, such as Netvibes and iGoogle they have never been able to offer quite the same level of functionality. However, even if they had been, I would have been inclined to stick with Pageflakes because the management team talked to their users. They had an active forum, a Facebook page and so on. They would ask questions of the users, they set up a small group of beta testers and developed the product in conjunction with the feedback they got. In April 2008 it was sold into the Live Universe consortium, run by Brad Greenspan, and immediately things at Pageflakes started to take a turn for the worse.
Clearly Brad Greenspan isn't the sharpest tool in the box. In fact, I'd go so far to say he's a complete idiot (I'd like to say more, but this is a safe for work blog, though if you're reading Mr Greenspan, please feel free to drop me an email and I'll explain to you in detail why you shouldn't be left in charge of any sort of company), since he's failed on just about every level. All communication between Pageflakes and their users quickly started to dry up. The last entry from a Pageflakes team member to their Facebook page was back in July 2008 for example, and the team of beta testers never heard a word at all. Communication on the forums also ceased. Greenspan and his team were clearly unable to work out that the main strength of any Web 2.0 based resource are the users. Meanwhile Netvibes was going from strength to strength, with new versions, lots of communication and technical support responses within 24 hours - all told very impressive. Brad Greenspan's second mistake - ignore what the competition is doing.
His third mistake (I'll keep counting, because there are a lot of them) is to stop improving the product. Well, I suppose he was using the Google technique - buy up a product and then doing nothing with it. Suggestions went by the board, but Pageflakes is a very robust product; extraordinarily stable in fact, so that wasn't too much of an issue. At that point I still felt quite happy to suggest to people that they use the product, though I was also suggesting that Netvibes and iGoogle were worth looking at as well. By then I'd started to really ramp up my own Netvibes page.
Towards the end of 2008 came the first of what I would regard as the killer blows to the service; there was a long period when a lot of users were unable to connect to the service, and 'long period' is days, not hours or minutes. Understandably people were upset by this and a large number complained and left to join Netvibes. Mistake number four; you have to provide a stable service for people to use, whatever the cost. Very little by way of apologies on Pageflakes own forum, with one poor tech guy (who seems to be the only one left) taking the flak and trying to apologise. Mistake Five - hiding behind junior staff and not having the guts to talk directly to users.
If this wasn't bad enough, Pageflakes users who still remain, but who are getting understandably concerned and more than a little ticked off go into the service one day to see a huge advert plastered over all their pages. The advert can't be moved or minimised. Mistakes Six and Seven - don't launch things without warning users, and don't introduce things users have no control over. If you were one of the users you'll know what happened next, and if you're not, you can work it out rather better than Brad Greenspan - users went through the roof. The second tranch of users walked at this point, having made their point in the forum and on the Facebook account. Several made the point that they were happy to help Pageflakes, and realised that the resource needed to make money - but simply whacking advertisements onto the page without any discussion with users really wasn't the way to go. The advertisements disappeared after a couple of days, but by then the damage really was done. The Pageflakes team had made their opinion quite clear - the resource was nothing more than a cash cow, the users their mealticket and nothing else. Mistake eight - treat your users with contempt and they're out the door.
Pageflakes continued through December and into January in an unstable mode; sometimes available and sometimes not - at least only for hours this time rather than days. Pageflakes went down again a couple of days ago. According to CNET it's because Pageflakes and associated resources are being moved to new servers. If this was planned wouldn't it have made sense to actually inform users, and provide some information on a holding page, rather than what's happened which is to look as though the service has disappeared - and I'm still not entirely convinced that it hasn't. Mistake nine - not to plan ahead, tell users what is going to be happening and keep them involved in the loop.
I find it astonishing that this bunch of idiots were in a position to buy the product in the first place - clearly they're unable to run it properly. If you think I'm bitter about it, you should take a look at the comments flooding onto Twitter about the situation; of course, no-one from Pageflakes is on Twitter, which is Mistake ten - not going to where the conversations are, so being unable to reassure or firefight.
So - is Pageflakes actually dead and buried? Or will it rise up once ported across to the mythical servers? I think I can safely speak for the majority of people who have used the system when I say 'Who cares? If the management team at Pageflakes doesn't care about the users, why should the users care about them?'
If you want an alternative to a once great service that has gone to the dogs I would suggest taking a look at my list of Start Pages though I suspect that most people will now move to either Netvibes or iGoogle.