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Sunday, January 15, 2006

The web delivered in a box, your own box

Every morning I go through the same ritual, I browse the headlines of a selection of my favourite websites by going through them one by one in my bookmarks. Well, no more. Anything that can be done manually can be automated by a computer. I have written my own application, Box-A-Web to help me drag together the interesting bits of these sites into one single personal portal, and the computer goes off and does the syndication of this information for me. What about RSS feeds, you ask ? Well I have one of those feeds too in another corner of my server, but these are the points I do not like about them:

1. You are not in control of what you want to see, feed publishers do
2. You need a RSS reader to view the feeds
3. Some publishers embed adverts in their feeds
4. Not all of my favourite sites have RSS feeds
5. HTML is a lot more visual than XML
6. I want to show my friends of my syndicated site sometimes, not possible with RSS

Up to recently, this would not have been possible to do with web technology. You can of course do this in an application you install on the desktop, but what is the fun in that ? I can change the appearance to my portal wherever I am, as long as there is an internet connection (which means most places these days). I do not want these list and tick jobs either, I want to be able to break a page I am interested in into little pieces, then drag these fragments and drop them on to a clean design, then collate them together like in a Jakartan Tapestry. Well, these days it is actually possible to do this using pure web technology, believe it or not.

With Ruby On Rails deployed on the web server, and a W3C compliant browser (like IE or Firefox), this is achievable. Ruby On Rails is not just a server centric technology either. You can do very sophisticated browser based operations like drag and drop, fade and swipe, auto-complete of text fields etc. It is also possible to partially render a web page without disturbing the whole page. The whole package definitely gives desktop technologies a run for their money.

Box-A-Web is an example of what the new technology can do. It emerges that once you break a web page up into little pieces, it is surprising how much of that page is actually useful to you. It is also more surprising how often these fragments change. So typically for a syndicated page, you do not really have to refresh all the fragments together each time. For this very reason, provision has been made for you to reload a particular feed behind a portion of the page without disturbing the rest.

Designing a partially renderable page i.e. AJAX, has its challenges, as all the URL calls you make to refresh portions of the page are fully exposed to the almighty Google search engine. If not done right, it can have some devastating effects (imagine Google getting hold of your delete URL, and happily invokes it once a night, bypassing all the Javascript prompters you have put in place to safeguard against earthly mortals, ouch !!).

Certain part of the syndicated page can also be made private, meaning they only get rendered once you have logged in. However, by default, everything pulled together by everybody is publicly visible. You can thus send an email of the public URL of your syndicated page to a friend so he/she can enjoy it too.

posted by David at 9:16 PM

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