My alternative to bookmarks: a page of links as the browser start page
September 20, 2012
For complex reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, I am regularly browsing several sites with my 'testing' Firefox. Since I got tired of typing site names into the URL bar every time, I bookmarked the most common ones and then got reminded of how bad an interface bookmarks are and how much I dislike them. The big problem with bookmarks is that they are slow and inefficient because a pop-up menu is an extremely low-density and awkward way of presenting links (or really of presenting anything). Even nested menus don't really help present the links better and of course they make it even slower to actually use your bookmarks.
Fortunately there already is an excellent format for presenting links to people, one that has a high density, is quick to use, and allows great expressiveness in grouping and organizing links. We call this format 'web pages'. Thus for years I have had my browser's start page set to something that looks like this (except with many more links, any number of which I don't really use any more and some of which I'm not sharing publically):
The basic idea is straightforward: I want every link that I commonly use to be on this page with a brief label, reasonably intelligently laid out in some setup that makes things easy to find. Of course this is not the only way that I access these links (I have a quick command line interface for some, for example), but it's still very frequently used.
(If you want to de-clutter the main page or you have a lot of a certain sort of links, you can make additional pages and put links to them on your main page. Some of my less frequently used or more distracting links live on separate pages.)
This works amazingly well, to the point where I can't find any more words to explain how well because it's so much what I'm used to that it's just how things should be. As my recent experiences have reminded me, the difference between this and bookmarks is night and day. Not only is it faster and more convenient, it easily copes with enough links to crush any bookmarks menu. You might think that scanning through all of the text to find links would be slow, but this is not my experience. After a while I'm not even really reading the text to find links; I already know where on the page the link I want is and I just home in on it.
(I know this crushes bookmarks for usability because I used to try to use bookmarks and my main browser actually still has a quite large collection of them from that era. In practice my bookmarks collection became a black hole; I'd add things and then practically never use the bookmarks menu to get at them. I should probably delete all or almost of them, since I haven't really looked at my bookmarks in years.)
You could put such a start page on a web server somewhere and it'd work fine. I use local files on my machines for two reasons; first, I want this page to work pretty much no matter what and second, reading a local file is faster than pausing to make a HTTP request every time I open a new window.
(I didn't come up with this idea on my own. I'm pretty sure that I got it from someone else on the Internet although I've long since forgotten any details.)
Oh, and another advantage of doing 'bookmarks' this way is that they can naturally be synchronized across browsers and across machines since your entire bookmarks collection is just one or more HTML file(s). You can freely copy them around, version control them, back them up, and so on.
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