The Web may make it easy to communicate with people thousands of miles away and put libraries full of knowledge at our fingertips, but plenty of simple things are still surprisingly hard to do online. Take saving a piece of a Web page. That specific task is trickier than it sounds. A startup called Clipboard is building a simple solution using some rather sophisticated Web technologies.
Clipboard allows users to select and store pieces of Web pages in a cloud-based account. Users can comment on items, tag them, and search them. The site allows people to keep clippings private, share them with specific people, or offer them to the public. The new site has been in stealth mode until today, but it’s now opening up for a private beta test (readers of Technology Review are invited to participate and can sign up here).
The site’s founder is Gary Flake, who previously founded Microsoft’s Live Labs, Yahoo Research, and Overture Research. Flake says that Clipboard grew out of his own needs. He couldn’t find a satisfying way to save and share information he found while searching the Web. In fact, he describes a laborious process that will sound familiar to many Internet users: After finding something interesting online, he says, he would highlight it, hit control-C, open a word processor or e-mail program, paste the content in, and save or send it. “That’s the state of the art for saving things on the Web,” Flake says. “For me, there was a huge void waiting to be filled.”
Of course, plenty of existing services let people save and share things they find online. People often post links to social networks such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, or to dedicated bookmark sites such as the newly revived Delicious. Services such as Evernote allow people to build up a digital memory cache loaded with notes, photos, and saved information from websites.
But when he went through what’s already out there, Flake says, he couldn’t find anything that met all of his requirements. He wanted to save items from the Web in a form that preserved the way they look, so that he could benefit from his visual memory of the page. He wanted the clips to continue to work—links should function and video should play. Finally, he wanted the things he saved to be portable, stored in the cloud, and easy to put there from a browser on any computer.
While the re-creation is based on the source HTML and CSS that loads the original page, the algorithm has to figure out how to transform the clip into something self-contained. It rewrites the HTML and CSS so that the clip will look and function the same way, even separated from its original surroundings. It also prevents the clip from clashing with other clips that the user might have stored. That analysis isn’t simple, and it has to happen quickly, Flake says. “Browsers three years ago could not have handled the algorithm.”
Clipboard tries to be smart at guessing what pieces a user might want to preserve. The application also analyzes a page to determine blocks that a person is likely to want to keep. Although it’s possible that in the future Web pages could add pointers that indicate how content would be best divided, the application is designed to work without help.
Once users save content, Clipboard gives them many options for what to do with it. The site’s ability to preserve function leads to some interesting use cases. Flake demonstrated that he and his wife were able to save online mortgage calculators in mid-operation, allowing the couple to communicate about the parameters and tweak as they went. Others have used the service to create online portfolios, clipping samples of Web pages that show their design and coding work.
“In no way does Clipboard impose upon you about what you should be clipping,” Flake says. People can use the service to save material for themselves, he says, doing research or just keeping track of interesting things. They can communicate back and forth about clips by using a convention popularized on Twitter—an “@” sign sends a clip to another Clipboard user. The service also makes it easy to share clips through e-mail or social networks. And users can decide to make their clippings public.
Now, Flake says, the site is slowly opening its doors to a larger community while continuing to build more ways for users to analyze and use the items they clip. He says, “For me, our focus is that we wanted to fulfill a need that almost every Internet user has between one and 20 times a day.”