From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 22, 1998*: Beam me out, Scotty!

The Hollywood version of this month's column will probably be called something like "Portal to Paradise". After all, it's the web surfer's dream come true: One easily located page from which he or she can connect to almost any significant, useful, interesting, fun (you name it) page on the web. Portals, today, are the rage. And until a new fad shows up we might as well deal with them a bit.

It's definitely not the sort of thing that you can complain about. After all, somebody is doing me a great favor in attempting to make my life much easier for me. Sure, there are undoubtedly the internet equivalents of the culinary snobs who go from store to store to find precisely this cheese, that bread, those freshly picked organically grown vegetables, and then find some remote picnic table and prepare their own sandwiches. But most people are more than willing to have everything concentrated in one supermarket, even if it means a reduction in quality, which isn't necessarily the case anyway. So let the internet snobs search by themselves; for the vast majority of web surfers a comfortable mall will suffice.

Just how do these portals work? The concept is incredibly simple: all you have to do is figure out what sorts of information people want to find on the web and concentrate as many links as possible to reliable sources of those sorts on one page (making sure, of course, that the page will still load quickly). And why is this favor being offered us? Ostensibly it's in order to make the web surfing experience more productive, less time consuming, less confusing. Oh, and one more thing: money.

Yes, those big sites definitely want to help us, but they wouldn't mind something in return. That something in return is revenues accumulated through advertising. It seems that we, the web surfers, aren't going to pay for use, and thus the way to make money is through advertisements on your site. And advertisers are going to choose to advertise on your site rather than on someone else's because you've shown that you can attract more users. How do you attract more users? By offering more and better services that make it worth the average web surfer's while to always use your site as home base.

Who has portals today? Who doesn't? Whoever offered us one small internet service last year is offering us the total web experience this year. AltaVista used to be a search engine. Now it includes a catalog and quick reference to a slew of useful sites. And don't forget e-mail. Yahoo! does pretty much the same. Netscape used to advertise itself. Now it gives us a jumping off point to the internet, meaning that you can feel quite comfortable leaving the default home page of Netscape just where it is. Microsoft does the same. Disney has recently joined the club. Frankly, if you really try and check each one out to determine which is best for you you'll probably waste more time than you can save by using the one you ultimately choose.

Was my favorite page of old, the basic search page of AltaVista, a portal? One the one hand, of course it was. It was a page from which I could get to anywhere in cyberspace. All I had to do was type in the keywords that I wanted to find, click on Search, and a list of sites appeared before my eyes. But this is what might be considered an "open tool" portal. It would lead me anywhere I wanted to go, but demanded an effort on my part (to define where it is that I wanted to go). Why not learn from experience? If sixty percent of the people who type keywords into the Search box at AltaVista type "sex", then why not make life easier on them and prepare a menu that includes a link to selected popular "sex" sites. Essentially, if you do that, you no longer have an old-fashioned, user intensive, search engine, you've got a modern portal.

The basic assumption is, of course, that most web surfers aren't going to be doing particularly complex or esoteric searches. They'll want to find rather basic information: a couple of good links to news and weather, the latest sports, a dictionary and an encyclopedia, medical information, travel - you get the idea. And thus it's not going to be too difficult to build a mall which isn't too big and yet still have something for everyone.

But why do we need a mall if what's so attractive about the World Wide Web from its inception is the concept of interconnectedness. In other words, if we're already in a mall, why should I want to be in a smaller one. What's the opposite of claustrophobic? It seems that most internet users have a latent fear of being in too wide open a space.

Someone is probably going to say: Hey! What's the big deal? Over a year ago I built myself an offline web page that I always opened to. It had links to all the pages I liked to get to and all I had to do was click on the link of my choice and wait for the selected page to load. It even had the advantage of being on my hard drive so it loaded immediately. Yes, a minimum (a very minimum) of basic HTML knowledge is required for preparing that sort of page, but the people at CRAYON offered the same sort of service more than two years ago - as I recall, before "My Yahoo!" and similar services became popular. So it's pretty clear that portaling really isn't something new. What's apparently new is the fact that the web is now filled with people who are happy to use services such as these.

Does that herald the end of the Mom and Pop web site? Are we now doomed to the McDonald's experience each time we want to search for something on the web? Not necessarily. There's still plenty of esoteric, idiosyncratic and in general singular sites out there, and the portals might even list them. We'll still be able to find them via search engines, and serendipity. Typing into a word processor hasn't totally replaced writing in longhand. But if it's not the end of that type of web site, perhaps it is the end of a certain sort of web usage, and it saddens me that  the possibility of more efficient web searching will lead to a diminished web experience.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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