What's one of the fastest-growing Web phenomena right now? Portals, portals and more portals. We're not talking about mass-audience, consumer portals like Yahoo!, Excite, Snap and Lycos, mind you. No, these new portals are unique combinations of company intranets and extranets mixed with relevant data culled from the Web. They're 100 percent business-oriented and so customized and narrowly focused that most Web surfers will never see them--portals that only serve employees within a certain company, build relationships between suppliers and their customers, or provide fresh, informative gathering points for special-interest groups and trading partners.
Like Yahoo! and that ilk, these so-called enterprise information portals provide personalized launching points--the first Web pages you see after opening your browser--combining links to a company's internal information with links to selected content on the much more public Web. Within a company, for instance, each employee may set up his or her own portal page to provide daily industry news, links to competitors' Web sites, and a list of the latest sales reports and other important company documents--and maybe, down in the corner of the page, a snapshot of his or her personal stock portfolio and the latest weather and sports news.
You can also create constantly updated portals aimed at customers. On them, you can highlight new products, special offers, news about your market, and even the status of specific orders.
In offering such personalized features, these portals attempt to solve the same problem portals have always attacked: Overcoming infoglut and capturing people's attention. With so many databases and internal Web sites of their own, a steady flow of new reports and other documents, and now the vast, untamed Web to cope with, companies have discovered a dire need for a way to automatically collect, filter and present information in a personalized and friendly way. (For more on information overload, see "Bytes".)
To help, numerous companies are coming out with portal-building tools. Epicentric (http://www.epicentric.com) and Plumtree Software (http://www.plumtree.com), for example, provide software frameworks that make it a snap to collect information from within the company and from the Web, provide access to internal applications, and present it all on personally customized Web pages.
Even one-person businesses stand to gain from this technology. Portera Systems has developed a portal to which road-warrior professionals can subscribe for just $90 a month. Every day, Portera scours the Web for the latest news about its customers' clients and competitors, maintains personalized calendars and other administrative systems, and even lets them send computer documents to Kinko's. Over time, Portera, like many other portal providers, plans to make more services available.
So don't be surprised if you start seeing portals everywhere. Cyberspace is a place, it seems, with almost as many entryways as people prowling its precincts.
John W. Verity reported and edited for 10 years at Electronic News, Datamation and Business Week. Since 1997, he has been freelancing from his Brooklyn, New York, home.