Importing Portals

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
2 January, 2018
Editorial: 164
Fecha de publicación original: 20 abril, 1999

A light purse makes a heavy heart

And now, on top of everything else, we are importing portals. Retevision, Spain’s second biggest telecom company, has just sealed a deal with the US search engine Excite to develop a Spanish version of this portal. This way, according to Retevision, the 12.000 subscribers to Iddeo, its service connection to the Internet, will finally find out how to get onto the Net. Unfortunately, the information on this agreement made no mention of how poor internauts have managed up until now to discover the wonders of cyberspace without it. Just to fill you in, Retevision and Excite have set up a 20 million dollar operation (18 million euros). If we add to this Telefonica’s purchase of Olé, and Yahoo! and Altavista’s Spanish versions, it all sounds rather like the the starter’s gun going off for the great portal chase. The interesting thing about this race, though, is that it is starting just when the US is talking about its possible end. This difference in perspectives (and investments) must form part of the historical hunger typically suffered by backward countries with respect to the big superpower.

As a friend in Washington, always predisposed for a flutter on the stock market, said the other day, if you want to keep track of where the investor’s money is going on the Internet, the best thing you can do is buy a lottery ticket. A couple of years ago “push” was the last word (remember PointCast?), before that the hot number was content protected by intellectual property rights (but then look what happened to the New York Times and the Washington Post, amongst others), and now it’s mass retailer sales and portals. And the latter, as I’ve said, is already being called into question. My friend had forgotten the case of Time Warner, who built a portal before anyone had even dreamt of the word, and discovered that the attraction of this mega-corporation was less than other names sheltering under its umbrella. Something similar happened to Disney and its service when its users moved quickly on to ESPN, ABC News and the Disney studios and from there on to graze in greener digital pastures in cyberspace. Portals retained less than a baby.

Now, given the flood of dollars moving around over the last few months, the debate over the future has livened up again and the results are dubious to say the least. I have pointed out the reasons for this in a previous editorial ( Where do portals come from?). Portals basically live off new arrivals, the fact that no-one explains to users how to change their default URL in the browser, and from a number of services which are never brilliant enough to make people want to stick with them forever. However, above and beyond these considerations, which could be considered of secondary importance as everything can be improved upon, portals do not solve the fundamental question, namely the creation of original content. And it is in this sector that an interesting battle has been unleashed in the US.

Jerry Yang, one of the founder members of Yahoo!, has coined a phrase which he says, will define the policy of his business and portals that wish to survive in the years to come: “sticky places”. And he is looking for the glue in digital media with their own information and specialised services, especially those devoted to local communities. The idea is not only to increase traffic to them, but also to invest in their efforts to reinforce (customise) agreements. The strategy is a clear one: to hybridise the portal by strengthening relationships with virtual communities. This means, of course, a great stimulus for content creators whose efforts could be rewarded when they establish alliances with these platforms.

In the meantime, Retevision has invested 1,500 million pesetas in getting the portal Excite off the ground in Spanish. Now, I know the question is a rhetorical and untimely one, but where does that leave digital content in Spanish — or our other official languages for that matter? With that amount of money in hand (yes, I know that one can get feverish and lose sight of the horizon and start imagining ridiculous things) one could sift through Spanish cyberspace and load up the saddlebags with enough places of sufficient diversity to build a real mother of a portal. And, to continue the metaphor of the milkmaid in the Spanish fairy story, one might think that with that amount of investment one could solve some of the structural problems that incipient digital services are having in this country, such as risk investment. And before the buckets burst, one might even entertain the idea that, after an exercise of this type, head-hunting for services pertaining to the Internet, Spain would be in a very good position to approach Latin America through an industry, an economy, based on language.

But that’s all just a fairy story. The executives betting on the Internet remain bound, hidebound, to old ways of operating. For them, there is nothing like a few, select broadcasting centres (scalable according to the mega-partners of this economy) to make the rest of the world sit back and listen. Those of them who have seen their children playing on the Net have realised that the key word is “customisation” (well, they use the term “personalisation”, in fact), which gives the portal a human, local, face. For the moment, it is difficult to convince these executives that the Internet will never be reduced to a handful of portals and that these will, in the end, depend on those that create content for the Net. And that internauts live in a permanent state of happy infidelity, looking for content which suits their own experience and not for the instructions of those who want to present them with it already pre-packaged. The problem is that until they come to understand this simple truth, they will carry on building veritable, and wasteful, digital cathedrals and, in so doing, leave an industry which is crying out for a helping hand, gasping for breath.

Translation:Bridget King.