My Top Ten Websites and services

…right now. This is a seriously temporary list!

1. Gmail – never have I stuck with an email system or even address for so long. Quick, easy to use, almost perfect.

2. Newsgator – you could possibly substitute this with Bloglines, as I seem to switch between the two, but this is my current favourite, largely due to the clarity of the layout. Must have a look into the FeedDemon synching.

3. Writely – simply a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.

4. ProtoPage – has fully taken over from the Google Portal for me. Am looking forward to any additions to the service next year – how about integrating with other services, like

5. HipCal – the online calendar that has actually got me using an online calendar – and that’s while it still only displays dates in US format!

6. WordPress – easily, to my mind, the best blogging platform there is. With version 2, it’s even more accessible.

7. Flickr – since upgrading to a Pro account I have started to realise the true benefits of this service. And all the talk about sharing is fine and dandy – but  nobody gets more out of seeing their photos online than the photographers themselves. Makes me want to carry my camara around all the time. 

8. phpBB – even though I have had to move Palimpsest onto VBulletin because of the workload, this remains the easiest to install, administer and use free internet forum. It’s amazing, really, that this doesn’t cost anything.

9.Wikipedia – lots of people sneer about it, but here’s my view: if you use Wikipedia as your only source for a piece of academic, or indeed any, work, you are a nitwit. I wouldn’t use Brittanica, say, as my only source for something, so why use something as obvious open to error as Wikipedia? But, as a quick guide to something, a way of genning up on something you knew little about, or as a way of whiling away a bored hour, there’s nothing better.

10. Palimpsest – well, I have to mention it. A haven from internet witlessness. Read this if you don’t believe me, if you have a spare couple of hours. Be there and be square.

Living without the Desktop

Here is an article I have written and submitted to the now active-again Living Without Microsoft website, run by John Naughton and Quentin Stafford-Fraser.

You would have thought that working without desktop applications would be pretty tricky. But there are now a growing number of online tools which can help you get things done online just as, if not more, effectively than by using traditional apps. All you need is a fairly quick internet connection and the will to try something new.

There are loads of different applications out there and it would be nigh-on impossible to list them all. Here’s a selection of some of the better known ones, and no doubt many more will be suggested via the comments.


An easy one this – everyone has a webmail account, right? But these accounts are getting more and more sophisticated, and generous in the provision of space for your emails to be stored in. The two big players, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Hotmail, were shaken up by the appearance of Google’s Gmail (now Google Mail in parts of Europe including the UK) and are now working on new, more richly featured services. The new Yahoo! Mail looks to offer an online equivalent of desktop mail clients, and Microsoft’s Live Mail is heading the same way.

Word Processing

Why use an online word processor? There are tonnes of reasons, but the main ones are accessibility and collaboration. Writely is the clear leader in online document editing – allowing users to upload Word files and edit and save them online. Other users can be invited to edit the same document. So, no more carrying documents on CD, USB flash drive or (heaven forbid!) floppy disk; or emailing them here, there and everywhere with the inevitable version control problems that result.


Unlike word processing, there isn’t really a standout service for spreadsheets. NumSum is probably the best option, because it works. It offers the basic spreadsheet functions we all know and love, and makes it possible to share access to the file for collaborative working. It doesn’t look all that great, however. You can’t at the moment download your work into a desktop file (as far as I can tell) but you can copy and paste into a desktop spreadsheet application.

The other option for spreadsheeting, where using the sheet as a rudimentary database is the aim, then Jotspot Tracker might be for you. Currently in beta and offering new users a maximum of two trackers (i.e. spreadsheets), this service looks a whole lot better than NumSum but doesn’t do as much. There’s no formulas for example. Instead, the focus is on project management, with a calender view that shows any dates listed in the Tracker in a calendar format.

Personal Information Management

HipCal used to be called MyPimp, before the developers realised that they were getting too popular not to be respectable. This site offers a nice calendar, to-do lists and a quite sophisticated address book. The only problem is that at the moment, those who like their days to come before their months in date formats will find themselves a little confused – though they are working on date representation, apparently.

Web Publishing

These days, personal websites don’t have to be the crapathons they used to be. Easy to use content management systems are everywhere these days, and you don’t need your own domain and hosting account to have an easily-updated, stylish looking website, let alone a hideously expensive HTML editor on your desktop. Google’s Blogger is simple and easy to set-up and use. WordPress is a great customisable CMS and you can sign up for a hosted site at, or BlogSome. There are countless others – TypePad and LiveJournal for example.

Photo Management

The obvious choice here is Yahoo!’s Flickr, which allows the user to upload photographs, which can then be organised into ‘sets’, shared with others and posted to blogs. Great fun.

Google has a kind-of entry in this category with Picasa, which is a desktop application that lets you upload and share photos with a service called Hello. I must admit, however, that I have never actually understood what Hello actually does.

News Aggregators

With the growth of news and information provision on the web, new ways of receiving and reading that information are being developed too. One of the most rapid-growing of these is RSS and its kindred spirits, Atom and RDF, which automatically sends a site’s new content to an application called an aggregator. These can be desktop based, or you can access them wherever you happen to log in with services like Bloglines and Newsgator.

Bookmark management

Why have one set of bookmarks saved in your desktop browser when you can have them available to you wherever you are? Sites such as and Furl (amongst others) allows you to save links to sites and tag them with keywords so that others may find them through a search and benefit from them too.


OK, not exactly a desktop replacement service but useful nonetheless. Create a personalised homepage, accessible from anywhere, containing some favourite links, news and site feeds and other information using services like Google Personalised Homepage or (my favourite) Protopage.

All of this barely scratches the surface of what is available, and there are likely to be further advances making the online experience as close to the desktop as possible. Perhaps one day the desktop will be rendered obsolete – though until all these new services start to tie in together more seamlessly, it is unlikely to happen.

Of course, to make the most of all these exciting web developments, you really need to have a decent browser

Things I Use

Thought it might be of some interest to share details of what software and services I use on a regular basis on my PC. Then again, it might well be incredibly boring. Here goes anyway.

I use FireFox most of the time. Tabbed browsing and the speed are the two plus points. I have three tabs set up as home pages: this blog, Gmail and Palimpsest. I sometimes use IE for things like online banking, and when I need to visit Microsoft webpages for things. For email, I use Gmail almost exclusively for my day to day emailing. I’ve never used a webmail client so useable. I have the Notifier tool running, which alerts me when new mail comes in, so I don’t need to be refreshing my inbox evey two minutes. I also regularly use Thunderbird for other email accounts for domain names I own, such as this one. I don’t touch Outlook Express with a bargepole. On the blogging side of things, I use WordPress to run this blog and would recommend this to anyone who has their own domain and database available. Otherwise, I would eschew Blogger, despite its nice integration with tools like Picasa, Hello and the Google Toolbar, because I find it slow and unreliable. Instead, I would recommend using MSN Spaces which is quick, fully featured, pretty customisable and easy to use. I use Filezilla as an FTP client and the new version 7 of the MSN Messenger IM client.

I read blogs offline with FeedDemon which is remarkable for being a piece of software I have actually paid for. It also integrates seamlessly with BlogJet, an offline blog post writing tool, which I have also shelled out the readies for. I don’t always use it though and sometimes good old Notepad comes in handy for quickly writing a post or note. I really wish, though, that ~ctrl-backspace~ would delete a word, rather than inserting a fairly useless character. There are no doubt plenty of free alternatives out there, but all the ones I have ever tried complicate things too much.

Occasionally I read blogs online with BlogLines which is a super service. PubSub and Technorati are useful blog search engines. For web search, it’s Google UK for me, though I do give MSN Search a go now and again. Google News and the BBC News sites are regular visits. WikiPedia likewise. The Guardian provides the best online content of any British newspaper, in my opinion, in terms of accessibility and depth.

I use Picasa to track my digital images on my PC, and wish it could integrate with blogging tools other than Google’s Blogger. These closed practises Google is developing pee me off sometimes. I usually host my pictures using a free account at Flickr and have downloaded their uploading tool, which works well. For other graphics work I use the Gimp – mainly because it is free. If I need to do any editing of websites, then I use 1st Page 2000 which is pretty comprehensive and (more importantly) free.

My choice of office suite is (perhaps obviously), which does everything I need it to. I am not convinced that it is anywhere near as good as MS Office, but for my needs it is perfect value. For security, I run the ZoneAlarm firewall, AVG anti-virus, Adaware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Am considering downloading the MS Anti-Spyware package at some point too.

I listen to music with ITunes as I have an Ipod, and watch DVDs with InterVideo WinDVD which came installed and seems to work quite well. For online media content I have Windows Media Players, RealPlayer and Quicktime all installed.

I think that is everything. Will update/correct links as necessary. Let me know if there is anything I should try out.

My 10 thoughts on successful blogging

1. Read more blogs

What you get out of your blog depends entirely on what you put in. Good, interesting blogs do not evolve in a vacuum. Read as many blogs as you can. Not only will you pick up on useful tidbits to improve your blogging, you are exposing yourself to new ideas and content you can discuss yourself. There are plenty of blogs-about-blogs. This might smack a little of navel-gazing, but with any new form, evolution comes through discussion and collaboration. Pick up new ideas and put them into practice. Listen to what experienced bloggers have to say.

Two blogs that you must subscribe to, and visit daily, are Steve Rubel and Robert Scoble. These two write more sense about blogging than anyone else. They also provide great links – after a couple of weeks your blogroll will have increased tenfold. These guys drag your ears to the ground where theirs are.

You have to use an RSS aggregator. Try out all the ones to can find till you find the one that works for you. I’m sticking with Bloglines. All the time I try out others, and every time I come crawling back. The one advantage with Bloglines for me is that it enables me to scan quicker than anything else.

Subscribe to anything you might think may interest you. Don’t discriminate in the blogs you subscribe to. It won’t take up more than a couple of seconds of your time to scan them, if there’s nothing to interest you. But there might be that one article that pops up in a few month’s time that makes it worthwhile.

Subscribe to link blogs – they are a valuable resource of interesting posts and new feeds to subscribe to. Likewise, check out people’s blogrolls if they make them available. They should.

2. Use a link blog

Have a separate link blog that you can post quick links to interesting articles on. This has a dual advantage – you can save items for later viewing, and you provide your readers with details on what you’re reading, offering them an insight on your perspective and where you are coming from.

3. Make sure your blog has a feed

People who blog without RSS feeds don’t deserve to be read. Blog engines that don’t produce them don’t deserve to be used. No-one has the time to look at individual blog sites, that’s what the aggregators are for. Never presume that your content is so great that people will go out of their way to read it. Make life as easy for your readers as possible.

4. Find a niche – but evolve it

There’s no point writing on some esoteric subject from the off. What are the chances of anyone coming by you? Write about a few things that interest you to start with. Focus on the one you have your eye on, by all means, but include other stuff too.

Really importantly, be regular. Keep the posts coming, at least a couple a day. If you are going to be away, let your readers know. The last thing you want is people thinking the blog is dead and unsubcribing. It’s a commitment to be taken seriously.

Over time, your blog will evolve, and its niche will become clear, if you want one. It’s an organic process. But unless you are a total weirdo, if stuff interests you, the chances are that there are other people on the web who will be interested too. But you have to cast a wide net to begin with.

5. Link, link and comment

Link to everyone you mention in a post – it’s common courtesy and makes your blog infinitely more useful. No-one would want to read a blog, only to have to switch to Google to find what you’re on about. Use trackbacks to let people know you are reading them and commenting on them. Use comments on other blogs to make salient and constructive points. But don’t do it for the sake of it. The more interesting your points, the more likely people are to sit up and take notice, and subscribe to your blog.

Make sure your blog allows comments, otherwise you are just having a conversation with a mirror. Always respond to comments people leave on your blog at the start, when there aren’t too many, so that a relationship can be formed with your readers. If someone comments on your blog, do them the courtesy of commenting on theirs. The key words are reciprocation and collaboration.

6. Keep notes on everything

You never know when they might come in handy. Always keep a simple text editor open, like Notepad on Windows, so you can tap stuff in as it occurs to you. Keep a notebook. Use an email account as an idea store. Ideas for blog posts can come from anywhere, from a conversation, an email, a book, a magazine or newspaper. Keep your eyes open and keep a way of recording what you see handy.

7. Make sure your presentation is good

Some people disagree on the need for good spelling or grammar, but I think it’s essential. I find it puts me off reading, as all I can think about is the mutilation of the English language in front of me. It’s true that the brain tends to skip some spelling mistakes, and no-one is error free, but its a good idea to read stuff back to ensure it makes sense. Capitalise sentences. That’s a big one for me. Avoid swearing, it can needlessly put off readers.

Your blog site should look nice too. Regular readers will be subscribers, but to attract new readers it’s a good idea to look like you know what you are doing. Try to avoid the most common templates that are available, make yours distinctive.

Try and make your posts stand out too. If there is a relevant image available, use it. Sign up to Flickr and post your own photos. Set up a random photo generator near the top of your page, it creates interest and makes people stick around.

Provide links to your blogroll, your link blog, other sites you are involved with. Have links to sites you visit regularly, it helps give new readers an impression of who you are. Include an email address so people feel you are accessible.

Choose a blog engine you like and trust. Make sure it has the features you want available. make sure its intuitive for you to use. Does it fit in with your methods of working? Consider your URL, and where you host your blog. Splashing out on webspace and a nice address can make you appear more committed, more serious about what you are doing. But it isn’t essential. If your content is good, you will rise up the Google ranks and people will find you by search, or though others’ links. Don’t change your URL. Stick with your decision. Don’t frustrate your readers.

To categorise or not to categorise? Some do, some don’t. It’s not that important either way. If you write on a diffuse range of subjects, it might be an idea to. It’s a good idea to give your posts titles though – it makes scanning on aggregators much easier.

8. Be interesting, even controversial, but not stupid

Don’t blog about things you shouldn’t. Don’t leave yourself or (even worse) others open to personal criticism because of what you post. If you don’t fully understand an issue, don’t blog on it – yet. Read more, take in other people’s views. Don’t make yourself look an idiot. Don’t flame people. What’s the point? You can disagree with others while remaining polite. It isn’t hard. Don’t deliberately take an extreme stance to provoke reactions. The most likely effect this will have is that people will ignore you.

9. Be funny

Hey, why don’t I take my own advice?! Everything that is good has jokes. Even the most bleak books, TV shows, films have jokes in them to make them classics. Even if it’s a black, dry seam of humour, it keeps the reader interested and coming back. Another way of putting this would be Don’t be boring. Don’t take yourself, your posts or your blog too seriously. Laugh at yourself. Respond positively to criticism.

10. Stick at it

No-one’s leaving comments. No-one is trackbacking to your posts. You don’t register until the 300th page on a Google on your name. Welcome to my world! But don’t give up. Think about why you started your blog. Was it for fame and adulation? Yes. Was it to get an enormous Google PageRank? Yes. Oh. Well, that isn’t going to happen, at least for a long, long time, or until you get a job at Microsoft or Google. Instead, focus on the smaller positives. Maintaining a blog keeps you in touch with friends and family who might read it. And if you only have a small number of readers, well, you owe it to them to keep going. Plus, your blog posts are improving your skills as a writer, which has to be a good thing. But most of all, you are taking part in a collaborative project, the blogosphere, which is on a quite remarkable scale. Someone, somewhere, is listening.