Come the Portals

It seems like only yesterday that we first heard the term portal used to describe a Web application. The first generation of portals primarily delivered structured lists of Web locations, which made it easier for end users to locate Web resources. These portals soon added the concept of personalization, developing into the "My" concept. Now, we have My.Yahoo!, My.Lycos, My.Snap and My.AltaVista; all of which provide users with the ability to select what information is presented and how it will be formatted on the page.

This year the portal concept evolved into several different modes, but many of the portals have common characteristics. First, they are Web-based and are available from anywhere as long as an Internet-connected browser is available. Second, they require registration so the system can recognize you the next time you log on. Third, they collect and categorize information. Fourth, they have search engines that allow you to scan for keywords or concepts and to browse the tree-like structure of the system. Finally, these portals have personalization features that allow users to individualize their experience.

Another group of Internet portals has emerged that focus on a target audience. These topic-specific portals provide users with products and services specific to their interests. Developer.com, for example, has information pertinent to software developers. This includes links to code examples and discussion groups on topics of interest to programmers and IT professionals. Bloomberg.com, as another example, is a portal focused on delivering financial and business information to investors.

Several companies have recently come out with products that allow IT professionals to set up their own corporate portals. These products take the characteristics described above and enhance them, making the portals useful corporate tools. Some of the features these revised portals add include centralized administration and security; integrated development tools, such as GUI builders and content management tools; and more powerful search engines. Some of the tools also add document management and collaboration/workflow features that make them suitable for groupware applications. Glyphica's (www.glyphica.com) InfoPortal products, for example, are targeted at delivering sales and marketing features to corporate users. PlumTree Software (www.plumtree.com) has put together a comprehensive offering that links databases, ERP applications and external data sources to deliver customized, individual Web pages for corporate users. Recently Wall Data Inc. (www.walldata.com) announced the availability of Cyberprise, which is described as being used to create online communities that include customers, partners and vendors.

We're also beginning to see vendors in the e-commerce and business intelligence markets attempt to redefine and reposition their products as corporate portals. These specialized applications, however, lack the broad reach of a true portal. For example, they lack the ability to deliver search and retrieve non-structured text and structured data together, and they usually don't have groupware or collaborative features -- unless you consider e-mail groupware.

So, if you're thinking about implementing a portal for your corporate customers, what should you look for? There are a number of features that I think are important for a true enterprise portal. First is personalization: The user must be able to select from a wide variety of data sources and have information presented in a way that is meaningful to him or her. Second is security: The system must be able to protect corporate trade secrets from unauthorized access. Third, there must be support for a variety of structured, unstructured and rich media data, such as charts, video and sound. In the same vein, it should be able to retrieve data from corporate data centers, ERP applications and external sources. These could include stock quotes, press releases and news sources, such as Reuters or Dow Jones. --Robert Craig is vice president of marketing at WebXi Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at rcraig@Webxi.com.