[19 February 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
In the 1990s, the Internet portal was the gateway and the gatekeeper to the Web, a place filled with a variety of content, from reprinted magazine articles to choppy playback of movie trailers.
Today, one might question if portals are even necessary.
The Web has exploded with content, from the goofy user-made videos found on YouTube to the non-stop updates of Google News. Why should I spend time in someone else’s generic and ad-laden backyard when I can go to countless other places - Slacker.com for Internet radio, Facebook for socializing or ESPN for a sports fix - for the information and entertainment I want?
That question has relevance now as Microsoft seeks Yahoo’s help to bolster its Internet business, and AOL is rebooting its original business plan by shedding its online-access business, a relic of the dial-up days.
The reason for a Microsoft/Yahoo mash-up is mostly about putting up a better fight in the face of Google’s advertising might, but providing compelling content remains vitally important.
While I haven’t been a big user of portals in recent years, save for functions such as fantasy football management, they still draw huge numbers of users. In January, 112 million unique visitors went to Yahoo, 95 million to Microsoft’s MSN and 90 million to AOL. Only Google, with 124 million unique visitors, drew more visits then these sites.
More interesting, and very telling, is how much time people spent at these sites. The average user spent 4:10 hours at AOL in January, 3:20 hours at Yahoo and 2:07 hours at MSN, according to Nielsen Online.
Google does not provide a portal in the traditional sense - it is still primarily a search tool - but I recommend taking a look at iGoogle, the useful, personalized Google home page that connects to a calendar, e-mail service, news feeds, YouTube, Internet radio stations and other goodies. (Users spent 1:11 hours at Google in January.)
In general, a lot of similarities remain between the portals.
Each home page leads with news, too often of the celebrity variety, and they can be personalized to prioritize how you want content displayed. At Yahoo, for instance, one can get a local feed from the area’s major news providers, including newspapers and TV stations.
They all offer services, such as e-mail and instant messaging, as a lure to get you to use the portal more often.
Also, and this is significant, all three portals offer full-length TV shows from the major networks. These free airings range from current shows, including hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Simpsons,” to classic fare such as the “Bob Newhart Show” and sci-fi icons “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space.”
Much of that content, but not all, comes from agreements AOL, MSN and Yahoo have with Hulu.com, a video-delivery site that has network backing.
There are differences, of course, so let’s use music as an example.
I’ll start with AOL, the portal I’ve been most impressed with because its music offerings are the best of the bunch. AOL has a link to XM Satellite Radio, where I’ve been listening, for free, to the best and most reliable Internet music stream I’ve heard.
It’s part of the revamped AOL radio offering that offers more than 200 stations, including two dozen from XM.
On top of that, the sound is excellent. AOL calls it CD quality, and I’ll add simply that it’s the best sound I’ve heard online that doesn’t require a software download. Ads play occasionally between tracks and are shown along the side, but this wasn’t much of a distraction.
At MSN, the home page is exceptionally busy, so quickly navigating the site to find music or radio was an unnecessary challenge.
MSN has a deal with Pandora, an Internet radio service that allows people to build a music playlist based on preferences. It’s similar to what you can do at other music sites, such as Last.fm, and it’s the type of service I enjoy since I usually hear something from an unknown-to-me musician I’m inclined to like. Unfortunately, I could not get Pandora to play properly on my office computer.
On the other hand, there was a lot of music I could play that introduced me to new artists. The Listening Booth at MSN allows for decent previews of new albums, and Ones to Watch offered a few artists that intrigued me. But overall, the MSN music offering lacked the pop of AOL.
At Yahoo, the radio could be customized for one’s preferences, too, but it was the only portal that asked the user to register. That’s not a plus. However, the radio feed worked well.
Then I downloaded the Yahoo Jukebox application. This is a robust media player that I could probably write a single column on because it is excellent.
The sound is very clear, the radio stations, which I can also customize based on my preferences, come through without buffering, and the Jukebox can be synced to a digital music player and Yahoo’s subscription music service.
But there’s a key drawback to Yahoo that Jukebox exemplified: Yahoo is by far the pushiest of the three portals. When I downloaded Jukebox, Yahoo changed my Web browser’s home page without my permission. And this is after Yahoo asked, and I declined, to have its toolbar installed atop my browser.
I really like Jukebox, but Yahoo’s insistence I use its other products is grating.
The bottom line: AOL impressed me the most, MSN the least, and Yahoo needs an attitude adjustment.
But I suggest you take a fresh spin yourself. Pleasant surprises await.
(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)