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Lost in Cyberspace

Portals: Many to choose from, or make your own

This article was originally published on February 9, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The latest rage on the Internet these days is the portal. AOL bought Netscape in large part for its Internet portal. TicketMaster's owner bought Lycos for its portal. Disney started its own portal, And Yahoo! – granddaddy of all portals – spent almost as much to get the money-losing GeoCities as Ford did in buying Volvo, and that merely to upgrade its portal.

So what the heck is a portal and why are billions and billions of dollars being spent on them?

A portal is a fancy catch-word for your home page – home page here meaning the default page your browser automatically opens every time you start a new Internet session, the page you use as a starting point in exploring the Web.

With few businesses yet making any money on the Internet (although that doesn't seem to stop their stock prices from spiraling ever upward), they're all looking for that magic bullet that will put them into the black. The success of Yahoo! – one of the first businesses to become profitable online – has apparently convinced everyone else that building a portal is the way to attract the visitors that help sell advertising.

And with tens of millions of Internet users in the United States alone (and that number continuing to grow rapidly), there is something to the argument.

Thus, the growth of the portal industry.

But for those of us who use the Internet, what does a portal really offer?

Most portals have roughly similar features: From one page, you can read the news, get the weather, check your free e-mail account, access Web search engines, track the stock market, scan sports scores, get the latest Hollywood gossip, shop online and/or play games.

There are the above-mentioned national and international portals, plus others from Microsoft, Excite and AltaVista (and even more). There are also an increasing number of "city guides," highly localized portals that are geared around entertainment and business listings – the lure being the ability to browse all the restaurants in your neighborhood, find a mechanic, see when a movie is playing, check out a museum schedule, etc.

Most of the national portals now have Web-based customizing options that allow you to set up your own personalized home page – tracing only the stocks you own, getting local news and weather, following the results of your favorite sports teams. (Cookies – small files a Web server places on your hard drive – are used by the portals to identify you on return visits so your customized pages come up the way you designed them. If you prefer not to receive cookies, you'll not be able to customize most, if any, portal sites.)

All of which means that we consumers have a wide choice of commercial portals from which to choose, and a lot of features on each portal to select from. And of course many people don't even use a designated portal as their default page – many have a local or national news or sports site; others, including myself, have simply created a Web site built around their favorite bookmarks from which they can jump to any of the sites they frequent most often.

The best thing about this whole portal concept is how easily it can be modified for your own purposes. For instance, if you don't like any of the commercial sites with their inherent limits and targeted advertising, you can easily create your own portal – one that is the ultimate in customization: Your choices. In everything. Choosing even from the portals themselves.

And you don't need to have your own Web site to do it, or know much about html>, the language used to code Web pages – all you need is an active Internet account and a computer.

You can store your own personal portal on your hard drive; simply assign it as your default page in Netscape or Explorer – any html> file can be your default.

If you want an example of a portal using a very simple set of html> frames to include three different sites on the same page, download "portal.html" from my FTP site. Aim your browser to If you use Windows, right-click on the "portal.html" link to save the file to your hard drive; if you use a Macintosh, click and hold the mouse button down over the link until a small menu appears.

Once you have downloaded the file, you can open and edit it in any word processor – just be sure to always save it in "plain text" or "ASCII" format. Where you see the three Web addresses I've chosen – the San Diego Union-Tribune, Yahoo! and NASA, enter ones you prefer. Whenever you are logged onto the Internet, if you open that file, the links will work just as well off a file on your hard drive as off another Web location.

See? You're in the portal business – and for a lot less than a billion dollars.