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Are all Portals the same?

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Published on: Monday 8th February 1999 By: Janus Boye


1998 was the year, where we, alongside with all the usual amount of technological buzz-words (such as XML, RDF, Jini, PalmPilot) all learned to say portal.

Portals are those one-stop websites, that tries to satisfy most of your daily web needs. Just like malls, that tries to satisfy most (if not all) of your shopping needs, or those, now old-fashioned, national TV stations, that tried to satisfy as many viewers as possible, by broadcasting a wide variety of programs aimed at almost all audiences.

In this article, I'll try to briefly define what a portal actually is, give a short history of the portals, review some of the current portals, and finally give a short suggestion of where the portals might be heading.

Before I start, let us stop for a second, and define the word portal.

What is a Portal?

At the WWWebster Dictionary, I looked up the word portal, and found the following:


Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin portale city gate, porch, from neuter of portalis of a gate, from Latin porta gate - more at PORT

Date: 14th century
1 : DOOR, ENTRANCE; especially : a grand or imposing one
2 : the whole architectural composition surrounding and including the doorways and porches of a church
3 : the approach or entrance to a bridge or tunnel
4 : a communicating part or area of an organism; specifically : the point at which something (as a pathogen) enters the body

The above definition gives a good background, to the Web word portal, that I found described in the on-line dictionary PC Webopaedia.

Web portal

A Web site or service that offers a broad array of resources and services, such as e-mail, forums, search engines, and on-line shopping malls. The first Web portals were on-line services, such as AOL, that provided access to the Web, but by now most of the traditional search engines have transformed themselves into Web portals to attract and keep a larger audience.

I think, the keywords must be: "to attract and keep a larger audience."

Judging from today's portal, the "core" applications of a portal are: Free e-mail, a search function, shopping opportunities, updated content (weather forecasts, news, stock quotes), plus some sort of community building (mostly in the form of chat rooms).

The whole idea behind portal seems to be, that once a user finds the site, he/she won't want or need to leave.

How did it start?

When talking about Web portals, there is no need to go back any further than 1989, when the Web was invented at CERN, by Tim Berners-Lee. Back then we only had very few websites, and we have to go all the way to 1992, before the first webserver was setup in the US.

After that, things went fast, especially with 1993 being the year, where the web really started to take off. In that year, where the world in October 93 had 200 known webservers, Marc Andreesen started working on his Mosaic for X browser, that he later turned into Netscape Navigator. In that same year, The New York Times also mentioned the Web for the first time.

Back in those days, an authoring function was built into most browsers (today you can find this function in the Amaya browser), so it was, as the Web was supposed to, really easy to add and edit information on webpages. Because of this function many users used a local file as their so-called default homepage.

The year after, in 1994, two Ph. D. candidates in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, David Filo and Jerry Yang started Yahoo! as a way to keep track of their personal interests on the Internet. Yahoo! later went public, and is now a major Web portal. More on Yahoo later.

AltaVista, which later grew into the most used search engine on the Internet, was then born in 1995, the year where, what were later to be called the portal race, begun. Netscape went public, and also released a new version 2.0 of their Netscape Navigator browser. In this new browser, that became wildly popular, and caused Microsoft to take the Web serious, the default website was set to Netscape's homepage. This naturally increased the traffic on Netscape's site.

Except for Netscape, other important 'portal' sites back then, were also the search engines, including AltaVista. The Web was, already back then, starting to drown in information overload, and the search engines did their best, to try to help desperate users find what they needed.

America Online, another US portal and ISP, mentioned the World Wide Web for the first time in their 1994 annual report, where they wrote:

We believe that Internet (particularly World Wide Web access) will become increasingly popular, and it is an important part of building a mass market for interactive services.

America Online today has more than 12 million subscribers, who, when they setup their AOL/Microsoft browser by default start at the AOL main site.

Who is in the game?

I've already mentioned some of them, but today, here in dawn of 1999, we have 10 main competitors in the portal space.

AltaVista, which I have already mentioned, has emerged from the most used search engine on the Internet, into a fully blown portal, providing everything but free e-mail and chat. Compaq, the owner of AltaVista, has recently bought Shopping.com (see http://www.news.com/News/Item/0,4,30744,00.html), and this will probably improve the shopping aspect of AltaVista. Other than excellent search functions and the standard portal offerings, AltaVista also offers the AV Translation Service, and a AV Photo Finder.

America Online, which is the worlds largest ISP, with more than 12 million subscribers in the US, offers all the standard portal functions, except free e-mail. Instead, AOL is strong in community building with AOL Instant Messager, and Hometown AOL, that lets you build your own website (currently this is only for AOL subscribers).

Excite, has like AltaVista, emerged from being a major Internet search engine, into a fully blown portal. Excite offers all the standard portal applications, even though both the shopping and chat functions are a bit hard to find on their main page. Among many, Excite also offers Maps&Directions, Job Finder, and even a Daily Crossword.

GeoCities, which started with being the site that hosted the most free webpages, has now matured into yet another fully blown web portal. Still the site with its many free webpages, and its tools for creating your own homepage, is very strong in community building, but also offers news, shopping and all the other portal applications.

GO Network, the newest player in the portal space, is part of the Infoseek Corporation, which ran Infoseek, another major search engine. Infoseek has now teamed up with Disney and created this brand sparkling new portal, offering all standard portal applications and much more. To improve their search engine, GO Network, has developed GOguardian , that filters out inappropriate adult content (even though it did not appear, what was deemed as inappropriate, and who made the decision?). GO Network also offers free homepages, and as the only portal also offered a dictionary.

Lycos, yet another portal that has emerged from a search engine, was the only portal, that redirected me to content based upon the domain which I am based in (I'm currently in Germany, so I was taken to http://www.de.lycos.de/). Lycos offers all portal applications, and by having bought Tripod and Angelfire, two major providers of free homepages, is very big in community building. Lycos has also bought WhoWhere? People Finder, and therefore also offers a good way to find people on the Web.

MSN.COM, the portal from Microsoft, has undergone several changes, but has now seemed to settle on a design for their portal. Tightly integrated with Hotmail, the worlds largest provider of free e-mail, the portal is naturally big in this portal application, but also offers all other portal applications. In news, MSN.COM offers an edited experience from organizations like ESPN, MSNBC and The New York Times, and in shopping MSN.COM offers links to Microsoft's popular shops and services including CarPoint and HomeAdvisor, and last, but not least, MSN.COM also offers maps and even TV listings.

Netscape Netcenter, the default page for those using a Netscape browser, and one of the first portals on the Web, has like MSN.COM undergone several changes, and has only lately cut away all the technology blur, and is now down to content, and being a fast loading portal. Other than all the standard portal applications, Netscape Netcenter also offers both an online Address Book, fax, Instant Messenger (in cooperation with AOL), and just like MSN.COM links to download sections, where the newest version of the browser can be downloaded.

Snap, which is a joint Internet directory and search service from NBC and CNET, offers all the standard portal applications. Snap has recently announced Snap 'Cyclone', which will be a new service for higher-speed Internet users that goes beyond text-based services to all rich media types -- video, audio, gaming, animation, telephony, and more - built atop the Snap Internet directory and search service. Snap 'Cyclone' will launch in the first quarter of 1999, so stay tuned!

Yahoo!, which has emerged from being the largest directory of webpages, offers all the standard portal applications and much more. As the only portal, Yahoo! offers a Calendar, To Do List and an Address Book, that can be synchronized with a desktop application (Palm Pilot, Palm III, Palm Desktop and Microsoft Outlook), so that users do not have to enter everything twice. When inside my address book, Yahoo! also offers a map of where the contact lives, and even though this only seems to work for those contacts based in the US, this is a nice function.

So, as you have seen from this short run through of the 10 major portal players, they are not all the same. They do not all offer the same suite of applications, but they do all seem to have adopted some standard portal look and feel.

Before I start looking at where the portals might be heading, let us just take a look, at who we are missing.

Who is not there?

In the portal space, the name of the game is market share, and this also makes sense from a business standpoint; The more users you have, the more money you can get in advertisement. Already with the previously mentioned 10 portal players, it has become a game of high-stakes "Monopoly", where everybody is trying to have the leading edge. In the next chapter, I'll run through the current market shares.

There are very high amounts involved in this game, and because of this, several of what we now call traditional media companies, such as Time Warner, CBS and Viacom are finding themselves on the sideline. Disney has also been on the sideline for a long time, but with the launch of GO Network with Infoseek Corporation, they seem now to be an active player in the game.

When talking about who is not there, it is also very interesting to note, that all the portals are based out of the US. For one, I think that this will change in the future. If you are based outside the US, or even more, if you are based in one of those countries, where English is not your native tongue, you might want your default page, your portal, to provide localized content.

If you are from the UK, you might want to use the BBC, that still basically only offers news, or if you are using the Internet from within China, you might want to use the Network Compass as your start page, even though this currently only offers a search function on Chinese sites.

Current market shares

Everything is moving very fast in the portal space, so by the time you read this, the below statistics have already grown more than old. When these lines were written, Lycos had just bought Wired Digital, Yahoo! had just bought GeoCities in a stock deal worth $3.56 billion, and @Home, which provides Net access via cable, had just bought Excite in a $6.7 billion deal, and in November last year, America Online announced, that it had bought Netscape in a $4.2 billion deal.

According to both Media Metrix and 100hot sites, America Online is currently the most visited site, with 30.97 million individuals visiting the site in December, which gives the portal a reach of 54.5 percent of all Internet users.

Second comes the Microsoft sites (with MSN.COM being dominant), with 27.48 million visitors and a reach of 48.4 percent. Yahoo! is then down on third (27.38 million visitors and reach of 48.2 percent), with Lycos claiming a fourth (26.38 million visitors and reach of 46.5 percent). Lycos has improved its rating in the last few months, so it will be interesting to see, where it will be, when the ratings for 1999 starts rolling in.

From these 4 portals, there is a wide gap down to number five which is GeoCities (18.98 million visitors and reach of 30.9 percent).

After GeoCities the remaining portals are: 6th Netscape, 7th Excite, 8th AltaVista, and 9th Snap. GO Network were launched after this ratings list from Media Matrix were published.

It will be interesting to follow, how the many recent mergers will influence the ratings.

One last note on market share, is that currently, both Netscape Netcenter, AltaVista and GO Network uses news content from ABCNEWS.com. But ABCNEWS.com links to GO Network, so for how long will Netscape Netcenter and AltaVista lead their users to GO Network?

Vertical portals

Other than the "pure" portals, many web sites are also trying to promote themselves as so-called vertical portals.

Instead of trying to provide all the portal applications, these are sites, that tries to focus on a specific application or area, realizing that they do not have the resources (or desire) to cover all portal areas.

Vertical portals include sites such as ZDNet, which are a high-tech integrated media and marketing company, with information relating to new technologies, Mirabilis, which with its ICQ software is big in community building and Family Education, which appeals mainly to parents and children.

The list of vertical portals, sites that provides information specifically geared towards a specific audience is long, but it is in this list, you'll find the new "pure" portals, and it is also in this list, that you will find those companies that the already existing companies are looking to partner with, to further strengthen their position. Companies that still are not in the game, are more than likely to also be following the vertical portals closely, since they might use these to fully enter the portal race.

So are all portals the same?

No, the 10 portals that I have covered are not all the same. They might all have the same portal look and feel, but the suite of portal application that they offer are not entirely the same.

Those portals that come from a search engine background (AltaVista, Excite, Lycos and Yahoo!), still gives me the notion of: "Find what you need", where some of the other more content based portals (America Online, GeoCities, GO Network and MSN.COM), gives me the notion of: "Here is what you need". It is then up to you, to decide what you prefer.

I was gladly surprised to see, that all the portals, except the German version of Lycos, had privacy notices on them. As the usage of the Web gets more widespread and the portals gets more and more visitors, it is nice to see, that the privacy concerns some users have, are being addressed.

It was interesting to see, that 3 portals (Lycos, GO Network and MSN.COM), used those "Best Viewed With" logos, that has tormented the Web for so long. For me it does not make sense, that portals, that try to have their initial pages load extremely fast in order to not frustrate users, can find the space to add such logos to their page. I thought that these animated gifs were reserved for personal homepages, but I was wrong.

Pretty much all the portals have a MyPortal function, such as MyYahoo!, MySnap, MyNetscape, where you, if you have the time, can create your own personalized portal, with the content you want.

To me, Yahoo! stands out in the crowd as very recommendable. Not only do they offer an excellent directory of web pages (that might be a bit outdated though) and the standard suite of portal applications, but they also offer an online calendar, address book and to do list, that I can synchronize with my desktop application (Outlook 98). To me, it does not make much sense having to enter all my contacts and appointments again, as I would have to, if I used Netscape Netcenter, so just being able to synchronize, makes it very easy to have an updated calendar on the Web, accessible from any PC in the world with Web access, and I think, that soon you will see the other portals imitating Yahoo! in this area.

Where are the portals heading?

As I have mentioned previously, very big amounts of money are involved in the portal space.

Still almost everything is paid for by advertisement, but I do not think it is unrealistic, that we will soon have to use micropayment to pay for any high-quality content we might want on our portal.

On the other site, as users become more savvy, don't they have less of a need of a meta-aggregator of content, and instead are more potential users of a vertical portal, even though this portal also may charge for content? And if all the real portals look the same, and offer the same, why not choose a vertical portal?

If we get authoring back into future releases of browsers, we might end up all creating our own portals, with pointers to the information we need...

What we have seen in the last few years, are search engines, one of the first killer applications of the Web, turn into portals offering a variety of applications. As bandwidth increases, I can easily imagine doing word processing and spreadsheets, and even databases, from within a portal. Portals will turn into a whole smorgasbord of applications, that you can use without having to install them locally. Your PC would then be less complex and hopefully also a bit more reliant.

When this has happened Microsoft, and other makers of operating systems, would have to rethink their business, as the only thing I would need to do my daily PC work, would be a browser.

Perhaps this is the return of the dumb client, but then again, our clients have grown considerably faster since back when IBM ruled the hardware world.

Useful resources

Related items

Light Relief

Links Want To Be Links

What are RFCs

Looking for Something? : Searching the Web

Intranets in Education

Representation of Japanese Language Characters on the WWW

Rendering Chinese Language Characters on the World-Wide Web

Where is the Web heading?

WWW - How It All Begun

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