FRAMINGHAM, 22 MARCH 2011 - One of the things that have annoyed me over the years has been applications that have no real customizability. Sure, in many of these you can switch features on and off but for many apps, adding a feature that would make the app easier or more effective to use was either not possible or required laborious macros using language subsystems that were overkill for the task at hand (for example, consider using Visual Basic for Applications to write macros for, say, Excel ... even simple enhancements always seemed to turn into coding marathons).
Anyway, what has happened over the last few years with the move to Web-based applications is that the architecture of browser-based user interfaces makes many of them easily modified or extensible in the browser.
For example, you can use products like iMacros (Firefox and Internet Explorer) and Greasemonkey (Firefox only) to automate and manipulate any kind of interaction with Web content. The latter product, Greasemonkey, has hundreds of free user-created scripts that allow you to do things such as have ads automatically removed from Yahoo mail or sort your Netflix queues according to various criteria (ratings, alphabetical, etc.).
This makes customizability much easier although it does have the downside that such improvements can be "fragile"; a minor user interface change can "break" the customization.
Recently there's been a noticeable growth in another type of enhancement of online applications that has third parties providing packaged customizations that are far more robust and add significant functionality. These products and services hook into one or more online applications through published APIs and use those services to add value to your data in another application.
So, today, I have for you two great examples of services that use technique to great effect.
The first is Rapportive, a free Firefox plugin that integrates with Google's Gmail and displays information about the originator of the e-mail message you're currently looking at.
Rapportive does this by adding a column on the right side of the Gmail display and showing the sender's picture (if it can be found), with data from their LinkedIn profile, their Twitter presence, and their Facebook page as well as providing the opportunity to connect with the sender via any of those services. You can also leave notes for yourself about the sender (e.g. "Don't forget his birthday on the 12th") which is really useful if you are seriously "working" your social network connections.
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