A Home Page With Your Personality

Two new services let you create a startup page with the info you want from all over the Net

One of the ways to make the Web a lot friendlier is to start with a personalized home page that displays the information you want in the form you want it. Portals such as Yahoo! Inc.'s MyYahoo! and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN allow some customization, but the menus you can choose from are limited. Now, a couple of new services offer almost complete freedom to create a personal gateway to the Web.

Both Octopus (www.octopus.com) and OnePage (www.onepage.com) are works in progress. OnePage officially calls its product a beta, or test, version, and Octopus still has plenty of rough edges. Although they use different technologies, both free services work on the same principle: You assemble the page of your desires by selecting from a broad menu of choices. Each selection puts a chunk of information in a browser window, and you can easily create and switch among multiple windows. If you are a bit more adventurous, you can grab content from any Web page and add it to your custom page.

One of the neatest features of Octopus--and a good illustration of these services' capabilities--is the construction of a company financials window on your page. First, pick the companies you want to profile by entering their ticker symbols. You can then choose from a long inventory of items to display, including such obvious selections as current stock price as well as an extensive list of balance-sheet and income-statement data. The information comes from a variety of sources, mostly Quicken.com and Yahoo! for the financials. Clicking on the data for more details opens the source Web site in a new window. Octopus and OnePage maintain marketing agreements with the sites that supply the data--a major revenue source for the services.

The ability to grab snippets from any Web page is one of the most interesting, albeit problematic, features of these services. In general, it worked better on Octopus than on OnePage, though OnePage says it will leapfrog the competition with a new version that is due shortly. For example, Octopus let me grab the quick fare-finder and flight-status sections from United Air Lines' home page (www.ual.com), but these weren't available from OnePage. To grab content from a site, Octopus takes advantage of information hidden in the computer code that generates the page. Whether any feature can be pasted into an Octopus page depends on how the original site was designed--a hit-or-miss affair.

Octopus says it works with Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer for Windows (a Macintosh version is in the works), but IE gives the best results. Netscape doesn't let you drag sections of your page around to place them in the window. And some elements on pages created in IE may not work when viewed with a Netscape browser. An occasional, and inexplicable, problem I had with Octopus: My home page would sometimes come up as gibberish.

The first time you create an Octopus page in IE, you have to download a small program called ActiveX control. When you edit a page in Netscape, you get a scary warning saying that a Java program wants to do something "high risk." This doesn't mean the Netscape version is more dangerous, just that Java plays by stricter security rules than ActiveX. Any time you download software, you have to trust the source.

MAC CAVEAT. OnePage doesn't need downloads for editing. It also works considerably better on Netscape browsers, though constructing pages is still easier on IE. Unlike Octopus, OnePage can be displayed on a Mac. But beware: The results are unpredictable and likely to crash your browser. Better Mac support is in the works.

If you'd like a customized page as your entry point for Web browsing, I encourage you to try either of these services. My current favorite is Octopus on Internet Explorer, but the programs are evolving rapidly, so that preference could change with the next version. I'd also encourage you to modify one of the predesigned pages rather than go through the somewhat confusing process of creating one from scratch.

Typical of Web startups, neither company has yet found a way to turn these free services into profitable businesses. I hope they do--these pages are very handy.