Saturday, August 22, 1998 Published at 00:56 GMT 01:56 UK
Portals play Community Chest cards
Communities may be the key to portal success
By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
Time was when a 5MB blank sheet of paper represented an attractive lure laid by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for subscribers wanting to construct their own home pages on the Web.
Not so much these days. Sites such as GeoCities have long allowed free space to users to be masters of their own domains, and now portals - the all-in-one hubs designed to attract and retain visitors - have begun offering the same service, but supercharged with features.
On Monday, Excite announced its Communities concept: your own free Website hosted by the company, with added chat, bulletin boards, group scheduling and address books to share with relatives and friends, or fellow members of a club or special interest group.
Creating communities for Dummies
Even experienced site builders would struggle to add some of the dynamic features Excite is promising, and it says the full service, launched later this year, will be easy enough for beginners to implement.
An Excite online tour of the new service shows how communities can be created and restricted to a few people or opened to everyone. A Welcome page the chosen administrator designs includes a display of who is currently visiting.
The group calendar can be added to and commented on by anyone, photo album pages can also receive contributions and comments from members. There is normal e-mail between members of the group, discussion forums and live chat as well.
What the Web is about
Creating communities, many would argue, is what the Web is all about and you get the impression that Excite feels it may have hit on a 'killer app' to keep users, and their friends, coming to its portal.
"When people think of community today, they typically think of chat, bulletin boards and public home pages," said Joe Kraus, Excite's co-founder.
"But no one has really completely integrated today's online communication tools with publishing online. Excite recognised an untapped opportunity ... to help groups of users with a common interest ... who have no technical skills, create a unique place to share on the Web."
The scheme could prove technically frustrating though for users, particularly for those with slow connections and local call charges who have to spend expensive online time constructing and maintaining the site.
Once up, it could save a lot of time and money on stamps and phone calls planning that school reunion, but those used to the fast file-transfer of FTP to update their sites might find Excite's enticements resistible.
A day after Excite's announcement, Yahoo! responded by launching its Clubs service, featuring, you guessed it, a unique Web address for groups to combine e-mail, chat, bulletin boards and personalisation tools "to create their own personal Web communities".
Yahoo! vice president Tim Brady gave a speech apparently cloned from that of Excite's Joe Kraus: "With all of the new communication tools available on the Internet, people have been looking for a way to bring it all together into one place," he said.
Others are sure to follow. Infoseek is planning a similar service and Lycos signalled its intentions with the acquisitions recently of the Tripod and Angelfire community sites.
Even bookseller Amazon.com is getting in on the act. This month it acquired PlanetAll, a site that puts groups in touch with one another and allows them to correspond and arrange events through a group planner.
The future for ISPs
All of this appears to be bad news for ISPs, who are seeing functions they provide and charge for - e-mail, Web space etc, usurped by the new free services.
The Gartner Group predicts that nearly 90 per cent of America's 4,500 ISPs will have disappeared by 2002 through take-overs and failures. Those that can offer new technologies such as Internet telephony with voicemail and videoconferencing are seen as having the best chance of survival.
In the UK, traditional ISPs are facing competition from every direction. The Nationwide Building Society began providing access this week, the Tesco supermarket chain has launched TescoNet and even the rock star David Bowie will be selling Internet access from 1 September.
British Telecom tries a new business model with the launch of BT Click in October, offering just a connection to the Internet, costing perhaps an extra penny a minute on phone calls and the charges showing up on the regular quarterly bills. There is even free Internet access available now through companies such as Connect Free.
More choice, no charges, better technology. The good times are still rolling for the consumer, but goodness knows when the industry will start turning a healthy profit.