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Search Engines, Web Portals, Ratings and Things...

by SANDEEP HUNDAL | What's the hottest word on the web landscape? Well, that's easy -- it's "portal". We've all heard about the hype and the hot deals, we've also seen the buzzword repeated to death in the media. Portals, designed to be an entry point for people trying to surf the net, are suddenly the hottest pieces of cyber-property around. Surfing the net has never been such a big business, and writing about this phenomenon has gotten most journalists hot under the collar. So am I just writing another article about which is the coolest portal around? Or just bitching about how all the portals seem to have dumbed down their design to Yahoo's original recipe? Nope, as this is MozillaLand, things are done a bit different around here.

Long oblivious to the fact that Netcenter was a cash-cow waiting to be exploited, Netscape finally pulled its pants up by announcing that it was going to be a serious portal player and introduced some (long-awaited) features to make it some kind of contender by this mid-year. The fact that it had huge visibility already due to it being the default home page for many NN users helped too, of course. 'Netcenter 2', 'Webmail' and 'My Netscape' were quickly announced to reinforce the objective: to be the most popular web destination by the year 2000. Then Navigator 4.5 PR1 was released with the 'My Netscape' icon on top, something which caused a lot of controversy in the mozilla-general newsgroup, a lot of it rightfully attributed to the horrible icon which was introduced, now thankfully replaced by one much better. Things were getting interesting.....

Now there are two issues to consider here, intertwined but nevertheless slightly separable. The first one relates to the viability of Netcenter as a big player in the rapidly over-crowding portal market; depending heavily on the user not to change the home-page settings, and the second one on the intergration of the browser with the portal. The point of this article is to look at each in turn and to not only speculate on Netscape's direction on this, and figure out how we're going to be affected by it, but also to offer some suggestions on how the situation could be helped.

We all know the big brand names, but when companies like Disney start showing an interest in developing a portal, you know the industry's hit the big time. Now that it's no longer the domain of startups looking to make a quick buck, portals are increasingly going to cater to more specialized audiences. Specialization is different than personalization, another goal which the portals have been pursuing. 'My Netscape' does fairly well in that area, if you disallow for times when the cookies don't do their job properly and you're forced to login to Netcenter to get all your settings. I mean specialization in terms of demographics. It could be a portal aimed at young people, one aimed at hip teenagers, or one aimed at the business community (like Netcenter). Being the jack of all trades increasingly means that the whole portal gets cluttered up with ads and services and the audience looks for a site which exclusively caters to their group (based on sex, age or whatever category). The current Netcenter strategy is to go for the professionals who surf the web, which is not too bad a decision since they're the ones with the purchasing power. But I still don't see it making it to the top unless a few things change. First, the breadth of services has to expand. Yahoo and Excite offer personalized chat rooms, others offer free webspace, and some offer easily available financial help or advice on car buying. All these have loads of incentives for visitors to keep coming back, something Netcenter sadly lacks; a strategy unlikely to make it numero uno by 2000. Secondly it has to act more like a leader than a follower, giving the impression that it is a serious contender, not just another horse in the race. I would also suggest expanding In-Box direct with larger services with options for text-based mail. It's never wise to deliberately try and narrow your target market in a mass media such as the web.

With more efforts at making it the default homepage than making it attractive for others (obvious example being the installation of 4.5 PR2 which makes Netcenter the default for IE too), I see a growing trend here which is going to affect us all in the future builds of Communicator (not necessarily Mozilla). But it's not necessarily something evil. A good strategy can be used to lure more newbies to Communicator if they think the features are cool. For example, why not expand the 'My Netscape' concept to embrace a 'My Email' and 'My Homepage' or even a 'My Chat Room' - providing of course Netcenter provides these services. But it would be cool if they enabled the technology anway, then made it configurable by the user to point to his/her personal preferences. I also think SmartUpdate could be made so that it automatically assesses the browser every month (configurable to another period) and then checks Netcenter for updates to the browser, which could then inform the user and advise on the easiest way to upgrade. I know a few of you will moan because of the increased bloating of code, which is why I suggest making these options either SmartUpgradable or an option at install.

My plea in the end is simply this: Netcenter has to have a more prominent strategy before it's too late for it to re-join the race. Yahoo's recent earnings report shows that there's money to be made there; not everything's in the ERP market. Have you got any suggestions or ideas? Why don't you post to Talkback and let everyone know? You never know, your idea could end up in future builds of Mozilla....

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