Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Exploring the Wild West of bookmark syncing services

January 14, 2012

Let me guess. As one of the highly mobile businessfolk, you have a smartphone with Web access, a laptop, perhaps a tablet as well, and quite probably a home computer. They probably have different operating systems and, crucially, different browsers with different capabilities.

Technology always spurts ahead in multiple prongs that don’t always converge together again, making it tough to use different devices that won’t play nicely together. Competition among technology vendors only worsens the problem. There are currently five major browsers out there, all free, and all slightly different in how they operate. All store your Web bookmarks in different places that aren’t generally available to foreign browsers. This means that if you love using Firefox at home, but you’re stuck with Opera on your smartphone, you can’t easily share bookmarks between them. At least, the browser vendors don’t make it easy for you.

Enter the ubiquitous third-party solution. There are companies that will hold your bookmarks in the cloud and dispense them back to you on command, no matter where you are. One of the first was the oddly named del.icio.us, which billed itself as a social bookmarking Web service, because it didn’t just store your bookmarks—it collected all its users’ bookmarks into searchable groupings that let you discover new sites others had already found. It was later given the more pedestrian name Delicious.com. Delicious.com was one of the first sites to trade in what’s now called “folksonomies,” or “tag clouds” of descriptive tagged words that users could affix to their bookmarks. You can designate bookmarks as being private, but the default is to share. Delicious.com is free.

Delicious.com’s success encouraged others to enter the field, but the vast majority of competitors have already wheezed their last. Services such as Furl, Gnolia, Faves and Simpy have all come and gone. Storing bookmarks online is a hazardous business. Delicious.com itself has been batted around like a cat toy. Founded in 2003, it was sold to Yahoo in 2005. In late 2010, a rumor shot around the Web that Delicious.com was being switched off by Yahoo, but Yahoo later clarified that it was merely selling Delicious.com, which it did in the spring of 2011. Its new owner, Avos Systems, changed the site’s design so much that users complained in battalions. The transition is ongoing.

Other companies have sprung up in this space and gotten good reviews. XMarks (http://www.xmarks.com) is probably the most-hailed service so far. It has a free offering and a for-pay premium one that includes a lot of advanced features. Even the basic free one lets you store any number of bookmarks with reasonable security. You can keep your bookmark folders to yourself, or share them with specific people. As a touch of sophistication, you can define subfolders, too. Xmarks works by downloading a synchronizer for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari. It can also synchronize passwords and browsing history, along with open tabs. A nice additional feature is the ability to encrypt bookmarks en route to Xmarks.

Alas, Xmarks is also being treated as a shuttlecock. The high-tech startup legend Mitch Kapor launched it in 2006 as Foxmarks, which he subsequently renamed Xmarks in 2009. The site operated on a donations-only basis, which predictably resulted in financial strain. In September 2010, Xmarks announced its own demise as of January 2011, only to reverse that decision and sell the company to password management company LastPass (www.lastpass.com) in December 2010. XMarks is still active as of this writing, but you never know what its future holds.

Browser vendors appear to be taking this effort into their own hands nowadays, but they’re mostly for specific browsers. Mozilla Firefox (www.Mozilla.com) has its own Firefox Sync that comes with every updated copy of Firefox. It was formerly “Firefox Weave.” You’ll need a Firefox Sync account to use it. It works only with Firefox, but has good security and it’s free. Mozilla calls the security “military grade.”

Google (www.google.com) has its version, and it, too, has been through some confusing iterations. The first product Google released was Google Browser Sync, but that was soon abandoned in favor of folding the functionality into the Chrome browser, where it resides to this day. You set up a Google account, then use Chrome to save every setting in your browser to your account. The settings, including the bookmarks, are then available from anywhere, using a Chrome browser. This isn’t all that valuable, of course, if you can’t use Chrome elsewhere.

Until third parties get their acts together, the safest way to store your browser information in the cloud is probably in Google or Mozilla, even if it means being adhesively bonded to their browsers.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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