Springpad Wants to Be Your Online Home for the Holidays, And After

11/21/08Follow @wroush

If you’re like me, you go through life with the vague hope that someday, technology will help you become a more efficient person. How often I’ve driven to the grocery store or the library to pick up one thing, knowing full well that there’s some other item I needed, but that I’ll never be able to locate it beneath the dust bunnies of my memory.

New tools for tidying up one’s brain come along all the time, of course: the File-o-fax of the 1990s gave way to the Palm Pilot, which eventually gave way to online services like Jott, Evernote, Remember the Milk, and Ta-Da List, and to the hundreds of personal productivity applications available for platforms like the iPhone. There’s even a whole website, Lifehacker, devoted to tracking such technologies.

But I’m still waiting for the über-application, the one central online repository that will allow me to a) file away all of the noteworthy bits of information coming in every day via e-mail, snail mail, catalogs, the blogs and websites I read, the mass media, billboards and posters, and the like, b) curate that information—that is, organize, annotate, tag, rearrange, and share it, and c) retrieve it when and where I really need it, whether I’m using my computer or my cell phone. The tool that currently comes closest to doing all that, for me, is Evernote, created by the Sunnyvale, CA, startup of the same name (I wrote a column about Evernote back in July). But now there’s a promising New England candidate, though it’s still in its embryonic stages: Springpad, an online notebook service launched in beta form last week by Boston-based Spring Partners.

Springpad is a system for creating customizable, task-oriented Web pages called, logically enough, springpads. To each springpad, you can add blocks of data such as text notes, to-do lists, contacts, calendar events, maps, and digital documents such as photos. You can build as many springpads as you want for the various tasks in your life. The company provides useful starting springpads designed for dozens of activities, from planning a vacation to tracking your pet’s medical records. There’s a powerful personal database system under the hood that allows you to tag, search, and share individual blocks, and Spring Partners—a 10-person, venture-backed startup located in Boston’s quaint Charlestown neighborhood —is working on add-ons such as an iPhone app and a Web clipper that will allow you to send information you find on the go or on the Web directly into your springpads.

Springpad Front PageIf you go to Springpad right now, you might get the impression that it’s all about holiday planning—the same way MyPunchbowl is all about party planning or Geezeo is all about financial management (both of those life-tool startups happen to be located in the Boston area too). But the Thanksgiving and Christmas motif at Springpad is a bit misleading—and actually represents a marketing gamble of sorts for the startup.

As co-founder and CEO Jeff Janer explained to me when I visited the company Wednesday, the team had to start somewhere. Spring Partners—which consists almost entirely of transplants from Boston-based mobile advertising company Third Screen Media, acquired by AOL in 2007—has extremely ambitious plans for Springpad. Janer sees it as the central place for consumers, starting with the Web-savvy 25- to 35-year-old demographic, to organize all their life activities—shopping, chores, hobbies, eating out, exercise, travel, research, you name it. He describes it as a kind of anti-Facebook: a place to focus not on your social network but on yourself and all the tasks and information you have to manage.

But that’s a lot to explain to prospective users—and historically, quite a few super-duper personal information management tools have fallen victim to what Janer calls “blank slate syndrome,” the problem of having a great tool in front of you, but not knowing what to put into it.

So that’s why Springpad’s front pages are currently full of the kind of tips and advice you might find on the cover of the December issue of Better Homes & Gardens or Real Simple: an “8-week Holiday Preparation List,” a “Christmas Card Log,” a “Holiday Meal Planner.” The tips are linked to pre-built templates that guide users through the traditional tasks related to Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. “The idea was to show people, in a focused way, how to survive the holidays,” says Janer. “Yes, there are all these other templates and features and functionalities available, but the full platform is still under development, and we wanted to get some users into the system and start gathering some feedback.”

So one of Springpad’s first challenges, to my mind, will be to avoid becoming known simply as a holiday-planning site—or, come January, a wedding-planning site. “Our notion is to roll this out on some sort of editorial calendar and look at what people’s needs are on a seasonal, topical basis, introducing Springpads that are very focused,” says Janer. “Now, by doing that are we creating awareness for a platform, or for a specific solution? I don’t quite know the answer yet.”

A sample springpadAnother challenge will be to show users how to take advantage of all the features built into the platform once they feel confident enough to venture beyond the pre-built templates like the holiday planners. From playing around a little bit with Springpad, I have the sense that it’s highly versatile, and that people will come up with many interesting uses for it that Janer and his team haven’t even imagined. But beyond the pre-formatted springpads, the company doesn’t yet provide much in the way of tips or support on how to employ all its tools. (One exception is the nice introductory video, embedded below.)

And one more key task—the one that could really differentiate Springpad from other personal information management tools, if the company succeeds at it—will be to provide more points of integration between Springpad and the dozens of other consumer-oriented Web services springing up these days. Almost every Web 2.0 company worthy of the name provides application programming interfaces (APIs) that outside developers can use to grab and repurpose their data. Spring Partners’ software engineers have already taken advantage of a few of these: you can import your appointments from Google Calendar and restaurant reviews from Yelp and make dining reservations using OpenTable, for example. But there’s a ton more that the company could do in this vein. Some of the more obvious things to add would be shopping lists that link directly to Amazon or Peapod, or calendars that alert members to concerts and other events in their areas and link to Ticketmaster, or health and fitness planners that link to online medical records at Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault.

Three members of the Spring Partners teamA very cool feature that could become a signature of the Springpad service is the “Springit badge.” You can see how this feature works by going to TheSimpleMe.com or SpringAdvice.com, blogs where Spring Partners employees collect material from around the Web that can be adapted into springpads. For example, there’s a post at springadvice.com about the website Dumb Little Man, which recently published a list entitled “The 9 Best Ways to Get Organized by Year’s End.” Springadvice.com provides a Springit badge that will automatically turn this top-9 list into a task list in your Springpad account. Janer showed me how the company is working with online publishers to embed Springit badges alongside all sorts of Web content—for example, an article at HGTV.com on how to reorganize your garage. (When Springpad sucks in such content from external sources, it can bring ads along with it, which Janer sees as one of the important revenue sources for the company.)

Janer says the response to Springpad has been gratifying so far. He says the site got a huge influx of users this week—putting some strain on the company’s servers, in fact—when Lifehacker published a post on it.

Those new users certainly won’t suffer from blank slate syndrome. But my guess is that the tool’s real utility won’t become apparent until the company has had time to introduce key features like a Web clipper and a mobile application, and to get Springit badges embedded in more places around the Web. Then we’ll see whether it has the potential to be the über-organizing solution that finally banishes the dust bunnies.

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Springpad Introductory Video

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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