Goodbye portals, hello identity

I’d like to take a moment to say something about the slow destruction of closed portals and the future of identity.

We’ve come a long way. In the very early days of the Internet media owners felt they had to be a one-stop shop to everything online. Time Inc. was one of those and it launched Pathfinder.com in the mid-90s to do just that.

To use the word “portal” feels old-fashioned now, but that’s what it was designed to be. The Pathfinder portal was a classic of the genre, designed to suck all of Time’s content into one big umbrella brand.

Pathfinder, thought Time, was going to become a new online-only brand. And of course, who could blame them for this strategy. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But with the rapid proliferation of sites, Pathfinder couldn’t keep up. In the end it seemed that all of Time’s hard-won brands were being kept out of the picture by Pathfinder; with the consequent negative effects on revenues.

So what do we see today when we go to Pathfinder.com? A list links to individual brands (all niche, as far as Time allows). There is no portal at Pathfinder.com any more. It does not try to be all things to all people.

Now, the search engines tried to do exactly the same thing. Remember when search was ‘so over’? Trying to become ‘the’ portal became a bloody battleground. Who now remembers MSN’s attempts to be a full-blown news service during the 1997 election? It was a great experiment in online journalism, but MSN quickly realised it couldn’t and didn’t want to compete with service-oriented media companies, even in that early era for online publishing.

The portals totally forgot about search, and along came Google to prove them wrong. It wasn’t a portal at the time, and gained its market strength by doing one thing very well. It didn’t try to do everything. How times have changed.

The world of portals now really only exists amongst the very big sites: Google, Yahoo! and MSN – the GYM Club as it’s known affectionately in the industry.

Even the big portals are struggling to keep up with the incredible growth in niche sites, content creation tools and the ‘loosely joined’ world of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). We’ve seen some of them react defensively – Yahoo! was the first to allow users to bring in RSS feeds from other sources into home pages; Google is doing similar and bought Blogger; MSN launched MSN Spaces and is grappling with how to react to the explosion in user generated content.

So in this new world where there is no true ‘one-stop-shop’ for everything; where people subscribe to feeds from a myriad of places; where sites themselves are turning into mashups of other sites and none of us goes to one place any more (OK, so we never did, but this is now a fundamental and unbreakable trend); what do portals DO?

The answer is, they can’t do anything. The only way to react is to make the ‘walled garden’ porous. To start disintegrating your closed system and let people and data start to flow more freely in and out.

Of course, are you a ‘portal’ at all when this starts to happen? Well commercially you probably still are. Publishers can sell a banner ad on someone else’s RSS feed just as much as their own.

But the actual mindset of this change is completely different to the old ‘portal’ thinking.

The same can be said of blogs. They are starting to fundamentally change the way corporate entities think about communication. As GapingVoid.com notes, “Blogs punch holes in membranes like it was Swiss cheese.”

That applies as much for companies as it does for anything else. The only response is for companies to start punching the holes themselves and talking to customers in a different way online.

The trend away from closed portals is changing the mobile arena too. Already we are witnessing the launch of start-ups who allow messaging and voice calls outside of the operator’s network for drastically cheaper tariffs (Skype, Hotxt, etc).

And how about the world of TV? In the UK, Sky lead the pack when it launched the Sky+ PVR. But with Freeview gaining ground in audience, hardware makers have come up with a myriad of Hard Disc recorders on which viewers can ‘mashup’ their own TV viewing. The change will continue as IPTV providers enter the arena via super-fast broadband, offering a smorgasboard of content on which viewers can snack or feast on. And don’t forget that Google, Yahoo! and MSN are all trying to position to hand ‘control’ back – of sorts – to users in the mobile and TV arenas.

The death of the portal is both real, but lingering. The fight will now become one of identity as portals which used to control your ID because you were literally “walled in” now try to win you over with identity tools locked into their ecosystem. You already move swiftly from web site to web site, from mobile, to TV, all the while carrying your preferences and personal networks with you – that’s the information they want and need.

At a simpler level: Why else do you think Google started to create services requiring you to log in (Gmail, Orkut, Personalized Homepage)? Why else has Microsoft said it will re-engineer Passport for Windows Live? Why else is the Yahoo profile now stretched across to Flickr and its other acquisitions? Why else, even, did the Guardian want people to register for access to some of its sites?

Identity is the future battleground for the old portals – and just about everyone else – and it raises a number of questions.

Will we revolt against the attempt to co-opt our identity or will the services offered to us in exchange for our identity be enough of a carrot to hold us?

There’s also the issue of reputation and your place in trusted networks. You can own your identity but your reputation is already owned by companies like Experian and insurance firms. How will the old portals move on this?

The emergence of what’s now known as Web 2.0 could be a key factor in all this. This is the web as machine-to-machine communication, not just people to people.

Web 2.0 applications, code, APIs and the like, are creating ecosystems which will be used by the old portals both to track identity, and, on the other side, by open source movements to avoid being tracked or to control our identity in other ways.

We may also see the emergence of something like a ‘federation of trust’. Again, this is something which the old portals may sign agreements with each other on – even while hackers are creating open, distributed versions elsewhere.

Will the focus on identity in exchange for free services mean that we will start to pay not to be a targeted by advertising or tracked? Or rather, pay for greater control over our identity?

Meanwhile anonymity may come at a price in the old portal world (less access to content for free) even as other sites revel in anonymity and attract users for it.

Craigslist scares media companies because they are happy for their users to be anonymous. Guess what? Their users like this approach and so revisit Craigslist again and again.

These are big issues. And it’s no coincidence that exactly the same kinds of conversations are happening inside governments about ID cards.

But to ‘bring it home’, three words sum up my feelings about sites trying to be ‘all encompassing destinations’: it’s so over.

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