The Internet can be a confusing, anonymous place for the novice. Which of the millions of pages do you start browsing? Where do you buy a car? Shop for a vacation? Should you bank online, or open a brokerage account? Take a flyer on an auction? Set up an online e-mail account?
By being your home on the Internet, portals such as Yahoo! and Excite hope to provide answers to these questions, and make a buck while doing it. Ideally, they want to be your home page, the first, last and only jumping-off point you'll need.
Portals are one of the most important Internet phenomena today. If you don't know about portals, you're in hopeless shape as a computer user.
To ''aggregate eyeballs,'' as the marketing guys say, they're in a kind of arms race to provide more features and more information. Having started primarily as search engines and guides with display advertising, their focus is shifting to providing applications such as personal bookmarks, e-mail, chat, address books, calendars, reminders, fax and voice mail services. At the same time, most allow you to customize news, weather and financial reports to fit your needs.
You can, for example, set up your personal home page to display local weather and give you quotes for the stocks you own.
Most seem totally committed to the idea that PCs are on the way out, and that all most people will need someday is a Net connection, a ''Web appliance'' and Web-based applications.
The biggest advantage: A good portal can solve the problem
of where to keep stuff. By putting your personal applications on the Internet, you'll be able to get at them from any computer using any Internet provider, and eventually, any computing device, not just a PC. It is well worth spending a weekend browsing through their features, customizing and making the result your personal home page.
The downside of portals is that they're still figuring out how they'll make money, and what business they're in. It's not surprising that advertising is important, but increasingly they're selling stuff themselves, setting up auction sites, partnering with favored merchants and, generally -- AOL being the most notorious here -- getting into your face with buttons marked ''Buy.'' You can never be sure when you're going to trip over a marketing ploy.
I don't use portals myself, mostly because I've been around the Net a while and have built my own. But for the beginner to the intermediate user, portals are a useful adjunct to your bag of computer tricks.
Which is the best? Features vary, but here are your options, in approximate order of popularity:
AOL's portal, aol.com (50 million monthly visitors) is a no-brainer if you already subscribe to America Online. Its biggest benefit, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, is that you get full access to your regular AOL mailbox, plus the AOL Instant Messenger chat system and the new AOL calendar feature. The only glaring omission from aol.com: You can't upload your address book and e-mail contacts. If you don't subscribe to AOL, skip the Web site.
Yahoo.com (40 million visitors) is the great big sprawling Mother of All Portals, the original Net site that adopted the eyeball aggregation strategy.
Besides the usual e-mail, address book, calendar, etc., the information displayed on your personal home page is heavily customizable and can include such minor goodies as a package tracking module. The best feature: You can upload bookmarks as well as e-mail address and phone lists in various formats, including those of the portable Palm Pilot.
Fax and voice mail also are available, but for a fee. As with most portals, the e-mail system provides a Yahoo! account, and also lets you set up external POP mail accounts. While Yahoo! is rarely first with any given feature, it tends to quickly copy the best that's developed elsewhere. (I'm an occasional contributor to Yahoo's dead-tree edition, Yahoo Internet Life.)
Microsoft's msn.com (35 million visitors) is a bit thin on applications features. (Not surprising. Doesn't Bill Gates want to sell you software?) But it does have one great advantage: unparalleled access to upgrades and news about Microsoft products. News feeds come from Microsoft owned MSNBC and Slate. An excellent feature is ''Research and School,'' which pulls together lots of resources for homework help and Web searching.
Lycos.com (30 million visitors) is a hipper, younger version of Yahoo!. Applications are weaker, but it does include the very cool Lycos Radio Network, a collection of 60 or so music streams ranging from adult contemporary to hip-hop. While other sites offer Web hosting and design tools, Lycos' two recent acquisitions, Angelfire and Tripod, are a lot classier, with more tools.
The smaller portals include Excite.com (15 million) with a collection of online applications that rivals Yahoo's, including free voice mail and fax reception. Excite has begun giving away Internet access to boost its numbers.
If there are not any dial-ups in your area, you'll have to try our long-standing favorite search engine, now reincarnated as a portal, altavista.com. While the portal offerings are just so-so, dial-up service is fast, and so far, not particularly crowded, even if you do have to read ads. Don't be surprised if Alta Vista's rivals begin giving away service as well.
Portals are a great all-you-can-eat feature of the Internet.
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