ISSUE 460: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE- Aug
Internet 'portals' offer a home base for surfers
while giving advertisers a captive audience
Portals are the latest hot concept on the
Acting much like a home base from which you can start
your Web explorations, a "portal" Web page provides a range of services
and customization to keep you coming back for more. News, free e-mail,
chat and instant messaging, your investment portfolio, maybe a
personalized Web page, searches, connections to people with similar
interests -- it's all there.
For the portal's providers, the goal is to maximize
the amount of time you spend hanging around the site. More page hits =
bigger advertising revenues.
Although portals sound a lot like what online services
such as America OnLine have offered for years, the difference
is that portals are free. Like AOL, they want to keep you connected to
maximize your exposure to ads on the site. And while AOL and its ilk
started out as proprietary services that added links to the wild and
woolly Internet, this year's crop of portals began as popular Internet
sites that added online service-like features to keep you hanging
Sites evolving into portals include search engines
such as Yahoo! and Excite, and browser home pages such
as Netscape, with its Netcenter portal. Microsoft is
getting into the act, with plans to resurrect its Microsoft Network
online service as a free portal.
Typically, portals give you a fast-loading, text-heavy
site that forgoes glitzy graphics and animations in favour of maximum
content and links to features. Unfortunately, in trying to keep up with
the competition, the feature set and design can change at a dizzying
Let's look at Netscape's Netcenter for an example of
the genre. News focuses on popular business, finance and computing
content. There are career and small business centres, sports and
entertainment news, and city directories; free e-mail and a
personalized start page; little add-on applications like contact and
to-do lists and calculators. Indeed, Netcenter already has more than 10
million users signed up, and brought in US$95 million in revenue last
Microsoft isn't a company that likes to be left behind
on any trend. The software giant already has most of the pieces that go
to make up a first-class portal -- free e-mail c/o Hotmail
(purchased by Microsoft), popular sales sites such as Carpoint
and the Expedia travel service, news and content from MSNBC,
investment services and the Internet Gaming Zone. With
Microsoft playing catch-up, expect to see a single, integrated package
emerging early next year.
Ironically, given its strong name recognition, Yahoo!
has a relatively weak entry. While its My Yahoo is a first step at
allowing users to customize their home pages, Yahoo! allows 25 million
users to come and go each month without managing to establish an
ongoing relationship with them.
A portal can't offer the full breadth of the Internet.
But given the sorts of things that most of us typically do on the Web,
a portal can meet a lot of people's online needs a lot of the time.
The result is a rash of companies looking for a piece
of the portal pie. Cable-modem Wave customers, for example,
have been pushed to update their software, with the result delivering
them to U.S.-based @home, an especially glitzy portal.
Portal companies have seen rapidly rising stock
prices. But there's probably room for only four or five big
general-interest portals. However, as in the case of magazine
publishing and cable TV, there may be room for a large number of finely
focused, special-interest services.
Future portals may evolve into what Anchor-
desk's Jesse Berst refers to as hubs and home
bases. Hubs, according to Berst, will be more finely focused --
more like Business in Vancouver than the Vancouver Sun.
And a home base will be a comfortable, personalized place to spend
online time when not actively surfing. Portals are tentative first
steps in these directions.*