--Alan Zisman

Internet 'portals' offer a home base for surfers
while giving advertisers a captive audience

Portals are the latest hot concept on the Internet.

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 around.

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 pace.

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 year.

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-
'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.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan