Dozens of personalised homepages (aka “AJAX homepages”) have emerged over the past 18 months as developers started to programme lovely drag and drop interfaces, allowing users to customise the layout of their personal homepage. Cool technology, great use of AJAX, but is there trouble ahead?

The personalised start page sector shrunk by at least one this month: Fold.com died, and the domain has since been purchased by what appears to be a barcode operator. Maybe it will re-emerge under a different name, who knows? I doubt it.

Fold emerged earlier this year, moving into public beta as recently as March. It made a bold claim to be ‘the Web 2.0 application’. It wasn’t. It only worked on Firefox, providing an instant barrier to the 8 out of 10 cats who only use IE. Surely Web 2.0 isn’t about minimising opportunities to scale?

The biggest problem with most of these homepages isn’t so much the technology, nor the scale, but rather the lack of any noticeable business model [cue groans]. Smart though they are, you get the feeling that none of these pureplay AJAX homepages are going to make any money.

Not that this has stopped some of the top investors in the web space from getting in on the action. This month Benchmark Capital has invested an undisclosed amount in Pageflakes, an AJAX homepage startup based in Germany. I’m curious to see where this leads. Maybe Pageflakes has some kind of secret revenue sauce, which hasn’t yet made its way out of the bottle?

Another AJAX homepage, Netvibes, is perhaps a little bit more interesting. It too has bagged some seed funding from the A-list digerati including Index Ventures and Pierre Chappaz, one of the founders of Kelkoo. And it is the investment from Chappaz that helps explain where Netvibes might be heading.

Most of the content on these AJAX homepages is built around APIs (Flickr, Google, Yahoo, etc) and RSS (your favourite blogs / news sources). News headlines, weather forecasts, stock quotes, that kind of thing.

However, on the default Netvibes homepage, which you can immediately start to customise without needing to log in, there is another content box that pulls in product feed data from Kelkoo. Let’s assume this is linked up to Kelkoo’s affiliate programme. And let’s ignore the fact that it doesn’t work properly (this could be a feed issue, but the pricing was somewhat wonky when I tried it out…).

So the Kelkoo feed appears to be the first whiff of a monetisation strategy for Netvibes, and maybe for AJAX homepages more broadly, though it isn’t clear whether the homepage owner earns the affiliate revenue from Kelkoo, or whether this will help swell Netvibes’ revenues. Kelkoo’s affiliate scheme pays out between 10p and 35p per click directed to participating merchants (from clicks referred by affiliates). Maybe it will share revenue, maybe it won’t, but with such small referral fees it will need significant scale to make any serious headway.

Netvibes is a great product, or at least a great implementation of AJAX. Is it a great business? It is hard to say at this stage, but you sense that there is a long way to go. But it has funding, and aside from Chappaz’s interest in driving Kelkoo leads, the business plan must surely have contained more than the following four dirty words: ‘get scale, get acquired’.

Maybe then, given the personal nature of these homepages, we’ll see a shift into social shopping. Kind of community-orientated, user-generated affiliate activity, where they plug in product feeds from other sources and earn affiliate fees for Netvibes?

This probably means joining up communities, MySpace-style. A community could be a family, with one person acting as the hub, managing birthday wishlists on shared calendars (does Google Calendar have an API yet?). Or it could be a group of friends into similar things. Or a publisher’s spin-off for that matter. But then there’s the risk of morphing from an AJAX homepage startup into a dedicated social shopping site? If that is indeed any sort of risk…

At any rate, I can’t imagine that any of the existing AJAX homepages will pose any real challenge to the likes of My Yahoo! unless they start doing something wildly different, for users and for their own business models. Yahoo is of course coming at this from a position of massive, insurmountable scale.

Can an AJAX homepage solve a problem? Sure, but perhaps we need to see an implementation on an existing website with a solid business model. You know, Tesco, Amazon, eBay. Maybe we’ll create something for you, fine E-consultancy reader, to allow you to customise our homepage.

And hey, this could be one of the new revenue streams for the remaining players in the personalised start page ‘market’: taking a trip down White Label Avenue.

UPDATE: This article appeared on Digg.com and upon reading the comments there seems to be some confusion. Just to be clear: I love AJAX. I also like what these ‘AJAX homepages’ are doing (“Ajax homepages” = Netvibes, Pageflakes) but I have a few concerns about their longevity as businesses (which was the whole point of writing this article). And when I talk about ‘Ajax homepages’ I’m referring only to websites like Netvibes and Pageflakes and MyYahoo… customisable, drag and drop, user-defined pages. It isn’t a critique of Ajax as a technology ;  )