What Portals Should Be

    March 19, 2006

I’ve worked on the implementation of several portals, but always from the content side, never the back-end technology.

I don’t know what goes into the guts of a portal that makes it work, but I know it’s complex. Most portals cost about $1 million and take about a year to implement. Customization and personalization are the keys to a portal, particularly the selection of portlets that pull targeted content from anywhere on the network into a box on your screen. Given these options, any employee can collect a page of portlets that contain the information, data, and processes he needs most often. A lot of portal projects fail because the infrastructure works just fine, but there aren’t enough portlets for most employees to make that level of personalization worth the hassle.

I’ve been playing with a service called PageFlakes, another free Ajax-based website that lets you tailor content. Just to look at it, PageFlakes looks like a portal. There are portlets, each of which features controls that let delete it or edit its contents. For example, you can set the number of items to appear in each portlet. The portlets available come in two flavors. There are “flakes,” which most resemble the kinds of portlets available on many intranets. So far there are 37, including one that shows you the mail in your Gmail account, one that displays your local weather, another that gives you a view of del.icio.us and another through which you can conduct online chats.

The second kind of portlet is the one that intrigues me. It’s an RSS feed. Add any URL to an RSS feed, and a new portlet window displays the feed’s most current contents. The combination of “flakes” that are programmed to deliver rich content and feeds works extremely well. You can create tabs in which to collect your portlets. The default setting gives you one called “work,” one called “fun,” and one called “reading.” You can edit these and add new ones. On any given page, you can drag your portlets into different positions, tailoring the view of that page’s portlets to your interests.

All of which makes me wonder if this couldn’t be the future of intranet portals. I suppose the business behind PageFlakes could be convinced to sell their backend to a company for internal use (if that’s not already their business model). I honestly have no idea how long it would take to produce flakes for internal data (e.g., inventory numbers, etc.). I also don’t know how practical it would be to create RSS feeds for much of that data. Could an RSS feed stay updated with information from a sales database? If so, the Ajax approach to portals applied by PageFlakes could signify a quicker, cheaper approach to traditional portals like Plumtree.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.