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COMPUTING

From...
PC World

Portals in the palm of your hand

July 27, 1999
Web posted at: 11:25 a.m. EDT (1525 GMT)

by Tom Spring
palm pilot graphic

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(IDG) -- Do you ever wish you could downsize your favorite portal into a tiny software app with all your favorite features and functions? A new breed of adroit software client does just that.

Besides news and e-mail, portals like Yahoo, Excite@Home, and MSN.com are bundling everything from chat to Internet radio and telephony services into software applications that run in a small window on your desktop. You can perform many of your favorite portal tricks without even launching your browser. All you need is a connection to the Internet.

While the industry may never arrive at a chat standard, portal developers all insist that a bright future lies beyond the desktop. To make that leap, portals are pinning hopes on these handy software clients that are slowly migrating beyond the browser.

As the Internet explodes beyond the PC and onto television screens, cellular phones, and a myriad of other devices, these Internet companies are preparing to follow the Net wherever it may evolve.

Portable portals

America Online, Excite@Home, Yahoo, and others have said they are working on ways to take their multifunctional messaging clients off the desktop and run them with non-PC Internet devices.

Elements of portals are morphing into software applications small enough for a handheld device. This change reshapes the portal landscape, which has lived inside a browser window since its inception.
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Already, by visiting Excite@Home's site, you can configure a slick little Excite Assistant to dock on your desktop and deliver news headlines, stock quotes, horoscopes, and local TV listings. This is my favorite among the new applets, although it still lacks instant messaging. When it's time to shut down your PC, your Excite@Home portal can travel with you in a Palm VII wireless device. It will send whatever types of updates or alerts you wish.

In the future, the company wants to let you access the Excite@Home portal while watching TV. The company is developing an "Excite Assistant-like" client to run inside its next-generation set-top box. This push is all about "applications being able to serve content and services to Excite users anywhere they are, and on many different devices," says Brett Bullington, executive vice president of Excite.

AOL anyplace

AOL Chair Stephen Case hasn't minced words about his company's intentions to penetrate all other media. He envisions AOL on television, cellular phones, handheld devices, and so-called Internet appliances, in addition to computers.

This fall, AOL users will be able to retrieve their e-mail using a Palm VII wireless device. But that's merely a start, say Palm representatives. The company wants to create an AOL-branded handheld device that bundles a number of AOL services.

Last week, AOL locked Microsoft and Yahoo out of its AOL Instant Messenger service, and the squabble continues. The stakes are high, especially when you consider what happens when you add telephony capability to a chat program. Giving that capability to 25 million AIM users and 38 million ICQ users makes AOL a virtual telephone company.

Empowerment everywhere

MSN.com launched its own MSN Messenger client last week. Last month, Microsoft's portal/Internet service provider unveiled MSN Mobile service, which sends MSN stock quotes, sports reports, and other information to pagers and digital phones.

Microsoft's strategy goes far beyond its messenger agent, however. The company's new battle cry is "Empower people through great software anytime, anyplace, and on any device."

Yahoo lives by a slightly different marketing mantra. The roots of its "Yahoo Everywhere" campaign are visible in its two-month-old Yahoo Messenger client. You can configure Yahoo Messenger to tell you when e-mail arrives, when a stock reaches a specified price, or whether your bid wins on Yahoo Auctions.

Next month AltaVista will launch a MicroPortal with a similar app that sits on your desktop and delivers nonstop stock quotes, sports scores, weather reports, or news headlines. Like its rivals, MicroPortal will add an instant-messaging client.

Lycos has also announced similar plans to capitalize on the proliferation of wireless devices and smart consumer appliances.

Look, Ma... no PCs! And no wires!

Not surprisingly, would-be entrepreneurs are hastily developing hardware devices for a non-PC future.

This is a frightening proposition to Microsoft, which could lose more than just MSN banner-ad revenues. Analysts say Microsoft faces a fight in a world of sub-$600 PCs that don't come with Microsoft apps or even Windows.

Portal companies should be concerned too, says Andy Bochman, analyst with the Aberdeen Group. "We see wireless (communication) as a new frontier that could potentially threaten portals' dominance as information brokers."

Wireless networks that connect people directly to hulking back-end servers could ultimately bypass the Internet and rob portals of both traffic and eyeballs, Bockman says.

That could be why Microsoft invested $600 million for a 4 percent stake in wireless service provider Nextel, and has established a joint venture with cellular telephone maker Qualcomm. Both deals involve rolling out wireless Internet services to some 2 million handheld telephones over the next year.

Agreeing on an open standard for chat is just the beginning of a painful transformation for portals. In the years ahead, last week's clash among AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo may look like a mere fistfight.


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