Tech Life What was bad then is worse now

The Portal Problem

Pet peeve — a name which do a poor job of describing an idea. A good name’s job is to elegantly wrap an idea in a single word because a name is going to travel. It’s going to leave one person’s mouth and go to another… and another… and another. Each time the name jumps a person, it’s runs the risk of being interpreted by an idiot. A good name can weather advanced stupidity whereas a bad name easily mutates into something it was not intended to be.

Enter Portals.

The term portal is up there as one of the most over-used terms of the late 90s. It’s right next to the term dot com except everyone knows what dot com means whereas if you ask your average technology observer exactly what a portal is… you’re never going to get the same answer.

Wikipedia defines a portal thusly “A web portal is a web site that provides a starting point, a gateway, or portal, to other resources on the Internet…”

Let’s throw up all over shall we? First, how in the world can you use a word to define itself? Second, how does this not describe EVERY SINGLE PAGE ON THE INTERNET. No wonder the term portal bugs me. It describes nothing.

Thankfully, the term portal has fallen out of vogue because of it’s lack of meaning and, hopefully, it’s association with the dot com implosion. Unfortunately, we might be in for another round of portalization and it appears no one paid attention the first time around.

Google fired the first shot a few months back with the first version of their Google Homepage. The event was noteworthy because of the utter lack of imagination Google put into the first version. Whereas Gmail and Google Maps had us chattering in the hallways, the Google Homepage was striking in it’s blandness and lack of obvious innovation. They’ve since rolled a new version which adds new content options as well as whizbang Ajaxables, but when you stare at your fully configured homepage, you think “This is exactly what I’d expect from a portal”.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has been tinkering in this space with the (Note: this page does not work in Safari). What is surprising is that the represents, in my opinion, a more refined interaction experience. Like Google’s latest version, there’s a handy configuration sidebar and you can drag and drop the different sections of your page. Start takes it a step further by allow users to change the CSS on the fly as well as alter the number of columns on the page… features which have been a part of My.Yahoo since, oh I don’t know, Netscape was still an independent company.

Why so stressed, Rands? Google is just filling out their product line to complete with Yahoo and Microsoft is desperately trying to show everyone that they can play in this space, as well. Heck, they even have their own Google Labs except it’s called Sandbox.

To understand my frustration, I’ve got to take a step back and talk about The Grid. If you’ve done any graphic design, you’ve heard of the grid. It’s the basic geometric specification of a page. Questions such as “Where is the headline?”, “How many columns on this page?”, “What’s the space between this columns?”, “Where should pictures go?” are answered by designing a grid specification. It’s one of those design terms that you don’t know, but are already implicitly doing by trying to aggressively use CSS on your new design.

Where innovative design comes from is when graphic designers take their respective grids and start to get a little crazy. They begin to violate the underlying design of the grid and this often creates unexpected visual interest while still hinting at a basic, orderly design. Want a great example? Go check out Dunstan’s (now defunct) weblog. He’s clearly working inside a existing framework, but what is interesting is where he push the constraints of that framework with work like his stunning top-of-page panorama.

Every portal I’ve seen does a mind-numbingly good job of following a grid. They do this for a simple reason, they need a means of representing chunks of information that can be arbitrarily moved by the end user. The boxing or chunking of these data into simple boxes makes the complexity problems associated arbitrary placement go away.

And it makes portals look like crap.

Both Google and Microsoft are doing their damnedest to use the latest and greatest web technologies to give flexibility to their respective portals, but they’re mimicking design from the late nineties. Yeah, I’ve been using My.Yahoo as my home page for five years now, but I honestly couldn’t tell you one piece of content on that page except for stock quotes… that’s the only thing I look at because the design blows. Nothing on the page draws my eye away from the column of stock quotes. Big things might be blowing up on the Planet Earth, but I wouldn’t know it from my homepage because all information is shoved into these boxes of vanilla lameness that reflect nothing about what information is being conveyed.

Please, I want a portal with just a hint of a soul.

I’m really glad that I can drag and drop my boxes hither and fro with the latest homepages, but how about giving headlines I care about with some meat? How about getting creative with the spacing on the page? Maybe allow me to increase the size of a box by draaaaaaging it across three columns and an option to say, “Hey, if there are images associated with this stories, I want them big and bold and centered.”

And, yeah, I want to be able to arbitrarily configure my content and, yeah, I know this makes the whole design a lot more complex, but how about this pitch. Why don’t you tell content providers like the New York Times or C|Net that you’re providing an option for premium exposure to the content by actually putting some design cycles into the layout of their content? Think they’ll want more eyeballs? You bet they will. Yes, this will cost them some dollars, but by landing some visual interest in their content, content providers will see more impressions and that means more dollars.

I’m getting closer to entering my third decade of technology immersion and I’m thankful that the rate of change in this industry keeps things interesting. It’s a pretty sure bet that whatever technology floats your boat this year will be dull as a sack of hammers in two years. This makes the introduction of these new portals from Google and Microsoft doubly frustrating. Even though these offerings provide the latest in interactive web technologies, their visual design reeks of five years ago and what was bad then is worse now.

9 Responses

  1. I don’t think I care so much about it being boring visually, but I want a portal that’s actually functional rather than just a list of headlines.

    I think that if Google would add some cool functional time and life management apps to their homepage, it could be a real winner. Decent to-do lists and calendar/scheduling apps integrated in one page along with my email would potentially be an Outlook killer for me. Headlines should just be gravy.

  2. Phil C. 19 years ago

    You wrote: “Second, how does this not describe EVERY SINGLE PAGE ON THE INTERNET.” Yeah, but most pages aren’t based on the obvious *intention* of acting as a gateway the way pages that label themselves as “portals” do, which base their very existence and functionality on being a gateway. But I see your point and I ultimately agree with you anyway. The word sucks.

  3. How do you think Yahoo’s purchase of Konfabulator fits into all this?

    What is Konfabulator but a collection of pretty, arbitrarily arranged, variously functional/non-functional, pieces of information which may (or may not) be driven from the web? There’s stock quotes too.

    I think Yahoo might get the very problem with portals here. People don’t NEED that one stop view of everything. That’s too much to cram into a single page. Rather than try to portalize people and draw them to your everything-to-everyone page, attack their desktop and make that the end point of information provided by your services. If they need more detail, they can always click and end up at your finances/weather/news/search page.

    It’s worked before. Look at the huge adoption of the Google toolbar or the very amibitious MSN toolbar suite. Having Google at the top of my browser window pulls them more page hits than any Google homepage is ever going to.

  4. kasnj 19 years ago

    Along those lines, I’d love to have something like this to work with…someday…

  5. Bertrand 19 years ago

    I’m not sure you got the point of, which imho is third party extensibility.

  6. Didn’t even see the third party extensibility of because I was really focused on interaction design which imho is still very lacking.

    I’m sure, under the hood, both Google and Microsoft are doing “good things”, but how am I supposed to appreciate these good things when the painful, dated UI design beats me over the head?

  7. Okay, sucks less than the Google homepage, but not by a lot.

    I think you hit it on the head when you suggested, besides a lot more tools to handle look-and-feel, the site needs to be able to figure out what’s important to, well, ME.

    In both start and Google, what you get are endless sets of more or less indistinguishable links which means I can’t just see what I want to see, I have to actually READ the darned thing, looking for nuggets of gold. But I don’t WANT to read, I want to know what’s important without reading.

    There ought to be a way for the “portal” to learn, from watching what I click on over time, what things matter to me and, based on that, to serve those things up in a way that I can tell what’s what without resorting to reading. Reading is SO last-millenium.

    What I see from the New York Time or CNN or ESPN should be different from what you see. In places where we do get the same stories, they may be presented differently (that is, with different emphasis).

    The way these tools work today is like giving everybody a newspaper and telling them to tear out and keep the set of pages they like best. So, I’ll take sports, the comics and, yeah, I suppose, the Editorials. You choose the food section, comics and page 1. The problem is, I don’t like all the comics and, really, don’t care a whole lot about any sport that doesn’t involve internal combustion engines or Tiger Woods.

    If you like baseball and cricket, you shouldn’t see the same sports section I do. What we should be seeing is a lot more subtle than making a choice of sports or no sports, and I can’t see any reason an intelligent system couldn’t begin to learn my interests in a reasonable timeframe.

  8. Dan Bernier 19 years ago

    …besides a lot more tools to handle look-and-feel, the site needs to be able to figure out what’s important to, well, ME.

    How about a portal that lets you “suck in” parts of a page from other places? If you like the World News section of the BBC, but prefer the tech section of the NYTimes, you configure the portal to grab those parts of those pages (I’m thinking along the lines of Kapow’s web clipping). Throw in an RSS reader, just for fun.

    Decent to-do lists and calendar/scheduling apps integrated in one page along with my email would potentially be an Outlook killer for me. Headlines should just be gravy.

    Exactly! Now, if we could tie all this together, and (let’s get crazy) tie in my publishing needs (my blog, my, whatever), you’d have something pretty kickin’.

    This reminds me of aggregators…web sites that basically screen-scraped your web email, your bank account web site, any e-bills, etc. You give the site your log-in credentials for each service you want added, and then each time you log into the site, it gives you any fresh info from each source. I remember working with one back in ’01 (they wanted to screen-scrape my company’s 401k site), but I can’t remember the name. I haven’t heard about anything like this in quite awhile…

  9. Whatever 19 years ago

    Maybe it’s my browser, but when I go to, all I see is a search box in a small blue field on a gigantic empty white page.