All-encompassing digital "portals" are jostling for your attention - but do they deserve it?

The explosion of the World Wide Web has thrown up a cornucopia of attractions for the average Web surfer - round-the-clock music, live video, online rock concerts, up-to-the-minute news, stock quotes and sport scores are just some of the distractions available. These and other more seductive pleasures have resulted in bookmark lists that are a mile wide and four inches deep; and caused fickleness, a trait long considered the domain of the fairer sex, to manifest itself in the browsing habits of ‘Net junkies everywhere.

Digital-age companies like Microsoft and Netscape have pumped millions into their pursuit of the holy grail of any Internet website - repeat visits. And portals, those new all-you-can-eat-and-more wondersites, are only the latest salvo in the battle to win the hearts, minds and (most important of all!) mouse clicks of the new breed of cyberspace travellers!

So this week we decided to try and understand the portal hype, and also point you to the best and most complete portals on the Web.

Portals, as the name suggests, are gateways or entrypoints to the so-called treasures of the Web. They are essentially neatly categorized lists of Internet sites in different categories, thereby making it easier for Joe Netizen to find what he's looking for faster and more efficiently...or at least that's the theory ;) And if you called them gigantic bookmark lists...well, you wouldn't be far wrong!

But this is just the beginning of what the average portal has to offer : most portals also offer free email services, financial information, news headlines, chat and shopping areas and message boards. And all of them have a search engine which lets you scan their database for the information you need. Many of them also allow you to personalize the content you see when you visit them; so if you want to know how many years Tommy Lee is doing in a federal guesthouse, but aren't particularly interested in the war in Bosnia, you can ask the nice folks at Yahoo! to only deliver entertainment(?) news to you, and cut out all the really important stuff ;)

Portals are also the hottest new thing in an industry which has so many new flavours of the month it can barely keep track of all the different tastes...and almost all the big players in cyberspace have one of their own. Unfortunately, in our review, we came across only two which actually rate a mention - all the rest come across as poster boys for the new science of cloning, and have nothing particularly interesting or different to offer. In short, we came away distinctly unimpressed :(

Portals offer numerous services, which we may classify as follows:

Search facilities: Most portals have a database of Web sites, neatly arranged into different categories such as Entertainment, Business, Education ad infinitum ad nauseum. And they all come with a search engine which allows you to scan the database for what you're looking for. Needless to say, portals like Yahoo! and AltaVista have a headstart here on account of their previous experience in the search engine field.

Email: Portals also offer free email services, accessible through a Web browser. However, none of these email services are accessible directly through a third-party mail client - a fact which annoyed us no end!

Information services: Portals offer news headlines, financial information, sports scores and weather information. Quite a few of them allow you to personalize this content, so that you only see what you want to see. And some of them also offer online maps and driving directions (usually localized to the United States only), together with online calendars and reminders.

Community services: Portals encourage online communities of like-minded individuals, and provide chat areas and message boards for these communities. While these are nice, IRC still seems more fun :)

Shopping: Last but not least, many portals have tied up with online merchants so that you can order the latest book or CD directly through them. And some of them even have online auctions, which allow people to put up items for sale, and allow others to bid on them.

So...are you impressed yet ?!

For our review, we took a look at the following portals:

Excite [ http://www.excite.com]

Yahoo! [ http://www.yahoo.com ]

Lycos [ http://www.lycos.com ]

Netscape Netcenter [ http://home.netscape.com ]

Microsoft [ http://home.microsoft.com ]

Infoseek [ http://www.infoseek.com ]

And, as we've already told you, we came away sorely disappointed. With the exception of minor differences in the services offered, all the portals mentioned above came across as carbon copies of each other. A little creativity and originality would go a long way in this war...

Excite

Excite is easily one of the best portals on the Web. It provides a directory of Web sites and a search engine for this directory, a people finder, free email, maps, chat forums, stock quotes, weather information and news headlines. The start page is extensively customizable, with the ability to modify layout, colours and of course, content. Excite also allows you to shop for books, music, groceries and software online through its association with Amazon.com and Music Boulevard, among others. Excite also has an online calendar and a daily horoscope.

Excite also has a couple of nice features which Yahoo! lacks - the ability to display your favourite comic strips each time you log in, and the NewsTracker service, which allows you to create a profile and then only displays news stories which match that profile.

IOHO, this is easily one of the best portal sites on the ‘Net...it has something for everyone, and is both user-friendly and easy to navigate. Now if they only allowed POP3 email access...

Yahoo!

Yahoo! was one of the very first portals on the Internet...and it's easy to see that these guys know what they're doing! Free email, a massive directory of Web sites, news headlines from CNN, weather and sports scores, calendars, chat forums, a people finder, an instant messaging service called Yahoo! Pager and online games. My Yahoo!, the site's personalization feature, allows you to customize the content you see each time you log on. Yahoo! also provides maps and driving directions, but these are somewhat erratic. And Yahoo! has also recently introduced online shopping and online auctions, which allow you to bid for different objects over the 'Net.

Now, as you're aware, this report deals only with the best sites in a particular category...and we just discussed the only two which are any good at all. And since we really don't have the inclination to waste either your time or ours with the remaining portals, all of which failed to make the cut for our report, we thought we'd just tell you what annoyed us about each of them. We don't mean to disparage any of these sites - they're all doing a great job, and each of them has something unique to offer - it's just that we wish they were a little less predictable :(

Lycos: The chat forums could be a little more active, and the personalization features need a little work.

Netscape Netcenter: A clone of the Yahoo! portal...and in this case, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. The overall design could use a little work, and we fail to see why people would use this portal when they could get much more for the same price!

Microsoft: This seems to serve more as a portal to Microsoft sub-sites than a gateway to the Web, and it is also far too Internet-Explorer specific.

Infoseek: No free email service

And we also thought that we'd take a look at the Times Of India portal at http://www.indiatimes.com. While this is not a portal per se, in that it offers neither free email services nor many of the other features found on Yahoo! or Excite, it does have some pretty cool services available; we particularly liked the Times Digital City feature. Check it out!

Well, writing this report has depressed us a great deal...here's hoping that someone, somewhere is listening and decides to do something truly revolutionary before portals go the same way as push technology, the last big thing that had SillyCon Valley salivating at the chops!

Till next time, stay healthy!

This article was first published on 15 Nov 1998.