Is a Portal a Portal?

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – May 18, 2001

If there is a buzz word around today, then it is "portal" - or more exactly "Web portal". Every company wants a portal, every major Internet software player wants to offer a portal - SAP is no exception to this. So, what is a portal?

If you want to learn about something, the easiest way today is to search the Web. Well, I'm not a spring chicken, and I confess that I once used voluminous encyclopedias to find answers to my questions. Now, however, I use an encyclopedia on the Web.

I went trustfully to the Google search engine, and here is my first search result for the term "portal" from the American National Standard for Telecommunications - Telecom Glossary 2000 (www.its.bldrdoc.gov/projects/telecomglossary2000):

  • A Web page that serves as a point of entry for surfers of the World Wide Web.
    Note: Most of the popular portals are designed to optimize their compatibility with one or more Web search engines. Many portals also offer value-added services such as e-mail accounts, Web page hosting, or filtered information flow, with the costs of these services being underwritten by advertising. Loosely synonymous with Web-page search engine.

Actually, I was a little bit puzzled by this definition. No mention of information, applications and services, which penetrate our marketing brochures. At a closer look, this definition is a little bit outdated and more a definition of where today's portals came from, that is, from search engines, such as Yahoo! or Altavista.

The Client Help Desk (www.clienthelpdesk.com/dictionary/internet_terms.html) offers a more up-to-date definition of a portal:

  • A Web site (that) offers a great amount of content and services, either on many subjects (a "horizontal portal," such as Yahoo! or About.com) or on a specific subject (a "vertical portal," or "vortal," such as women.com or WebMD).

Finally I asked the internet.com Webopedia (www.webopedia.com) about what a Web portal is and found this answer:

  • A Web site or service that offers a broad array of resources and services, such as e-mail, forums, search engines, and on-line shopping malls. The first Web portals were online services, such as AOL, that provided access to the Web, but by now most of the traditional search engines have transformed themselves into Web portals to attract and keep a larger audience.

OK, there is not much overlap between these definitions - one focuses on the entry point aspect, the other two on a mix of content or resources and services. Perhaps, I should go back to the original definition of what a portal is to get more insight.

I did that and thanks to a meta search engine (One Look Dictionary, www.onelook.com), which offers links to definitions of the given term provided by many online dictionaries, I finally got some helpful answers (I list only the relevant definitions, not the specialized ones, such as "portal vein"):

  • Dictionary.com: A doorway, an entrance, or a gate, especially one that is large and imposing
  • Allwords.com: A door, gate, or entrance, esp. one of imposing appearance, as to a palace
  • Cambridge Dictionary Online: A large and often highly decorated entrance to a building
  • Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary:
    1. Door, entrance; especially : a grand or imposing one
    2. the whole architectural composition surrounding and including the doorways and porches of a church
    3. the approach or entrance to a bridge or tunnel
  • American Heritage Dictionary:
    1. A doorway, entrance, or gate, especially one that is large and imposing
    2. An entrance or a means of entrance: "the local library, a portal of knowledge"
    3. A website considered as an entry point to other websites, often by being or providing access to a search engine

At least for the "classical" definitions of a portal, there is some overlap between the definitions: a portal is basically a large and imposing door or entrance to a building, or more generally, to something (the "something" is important for Web portals because otherwise we would have a problem - we live in a virtual world these days).

Now let's take a look at some of the portals around today and ask whether and how they comply with this definition. Let's begin with the Mewoo! portal: A huge categorized link list shows up with lots of blue underlined links and little decoration. Actually, it looks a little bit dull in my opinion, it's more the opposite of fancy. OK, since links are like doors, we have a page full of doors, sort of like an Advent calendar. And large it is, with lots of links, close to one hundred. But is it imposing and highly decorated? No, it is not. So, it's sort of a portal, but not as impressive as I expected.

The <i>Mewoo!</i> portal - many doors but not very inviting

Figure 1: The Mewoo! portal - many doors but not very inviting

Let's move over to the Parthenon portal. Very impressive! Huge columns, lots of decoration - you feel like a dwarf when you enter it. But inside there is nothing. So, it's basically imposing decoration with no content behind it. Again, it's sort of a portal, but not as useful as expected. Actually it's not even a Web portal, it's made of stone - sorry for tricking you.

The Parthenon portal - very impressive, but little content

Figure 2: The Parthenon portal - very impressive, but little content

Finally, let's look at our ideal portal, featuring information, applications and services. Is that a portal? Well, I am not so sure whether it is - or more exactly, whether it should be. Why? If a portal is just an entrance to these three things, that's too little to satisfy my needs. A portal should be intelligent - it should reflect my work. It should show changes to data, states, information, etc. that I effected when working with applications that I accessed through the portal. A good portal should not be a "one-way" channel, but should include a "feedback channel." It should be a transparent medium that reflects my work. With this in mind, should a portal really be a portal? I don't think so - it should be more than a portal. Suggestions for a new term are welcome.

 

Final Word

By the way, the term "portal" has already sprouted new terms. One of the newer creations is "vortal" or "vertical portal" which by definition (from Webopedia) is

  • A portal Web site that provides information and resources for a particular industry. Vortals are the Internet's way of catering to consumers' focused-environment preferences.

The Client Help Desk even mentions "horizontal portals" (e.g. Yahoo!, see above) adding that these are "all-purpose portals." So, are all non-vortals horizontal portals? Then these portals should be accordingly named "hortals" I thought. However, when I searched the Web for the term "hortal" I found mostly links to some Spanish or South American people. Has the term not yet been coined? OK, then I claim that this term has been invented by me!

PS: I would like to thank Carsten Lessmann for providing the notion of a portal as being intelligent and reflecting the user's work and Ramona Winkler for directing me towards Web portal definitions.

 

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