"What's that?" she asked, looking over my shoulder as I logged into my Google account and opened my personalized page.
When I told her that this was my iGoogle page, replete with all of the news, weather, stock quotes, information, blogs-everything-that I like to have at my fingertips, she was dumbstruck. "How did you get that?" she asked.
I was dumbstruck, too. Is it possible that she-and, maybe, you-haven't heard about iGoogle? Well, that changes today, and you can thank me later.
Portal pages like Yahoo!, Excite, MSN, Google and others aren't new. The exciting part, and what seems to still be new for many people, is that these sites offer you the tools to tailor the data to your personal preferences. From simple ideas, like entering your ZIP code to get local weather, to more complicated processes like adding your favorite feeds from blogs and other sites, these portals have done a remarkable job of making everything simple to integrate.
While I've used many of these portals over the years, I've recently settled on iGoogle (as apparently everything must be pre-pended with an 'i' if it's even remotely related to the Internet; thank you Steve Jobs). Small touches, like page headers that change throughout the day based on your local weather patterns, set their concept apart from the competitors. On my current design, the top of the page shows a beach scene where the Sun trails across the sky. Yesterday, during recurring storms outside my window, it was raining heavily on my screen, too.
You don't need an account to create your personalized page, but you might find it helpful if you use computers in a public setting and want to save your preferences. First go to Google (do you really need the web address?). You'll see a link in the upper-right corner for iGoogle. Click that, and you'll see a new page with a couple of basic news items, a weather box, and a sentence at the top that says "Welcome to your Google homepage. Make it your own." Simply click the link and you'll be given the initial sampling of content that can be easily added to your customized homepage. Choose from modules for calendars, movies, news, sports... whatever suits you.
At the bottom of the page, you'll see another link to "Add news, games, and more to this page." Clicking that link shows you hundreds of options of small, informationbased modules that you can add. Like Dilbert? He's there. Need to know the time in Munich? Add a world clock. Keep track of your to-do lists. Find local gas prices. Have quick access to a language translator. See who's hot (and not) from Entertainment Weekly. Get a recipe for dinner. Check out a daily Bible verse. If you can think of it, it's probably available.
How does this all work? Well, most of these modules are made possible using a technology called RSS, or "really simple syndication." RSS is a method whereby Internet sites make their content available in lightweight, flexible, and portable snippets of XML code. Other sites can access these snippets, format as necessary, and make them available in other places.
For example, when you see headlines from WebMD on your iGoogle page, you're really seeing the data that you could find if you went directly to WebMD. This way, you can see it all on one page, instead of visiting each site individually. And the page updates throughout the day so, whenever you look, you're essentially seeing the latest information available. This RSS implementation also allows you to add feeds from blogs directly to your personalized iGoogle page, so you'll always know when your favorite bloggers have made a new posting.
For the final touch, click the link that says "Select theme." You'll be able to choose from Classic (boring) and six others. Did I mention that this is all free?
If you can pull yourself away from your new iGoogle page, be sure to let me know how you like having your own, personal information valet.
Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.