Finding Your Port(al) in a Storm

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

September/October 1998


por-tal [noun, from Latin porta or door] "a doorway, gate or entrance

--- Webster's New World Dictionary


When you start a web browser like Netscape, Internet Explorer or America Online's Web Browser it automatically loads a web page it calls "Home." What many people don't know is that it is simple to have your Home Page be any web page you want.

In Netscape, for example, you pull down the menu OPTIONS, then click on PREFERENCES and finally click on the tab labeled APPEARANCE. A section of this titled STARTUP indicates whether you want to start with a blank page or with a Home Page Location. To start with a home page, type the url in the box. On other browsers the process is quite similar.

So, how do you decide where to start your web exploration? Most people just leave the default home page which is preset when you receive the browser. However, recently a new trend has emerged where different sites are asking to serve as your Home Page. Their offer is simple: we will provide you with a page from which you can do nearly anything that you want to do on the web. These new sites are called "portals."

As in the Webster's definition above, portals provide you a gateway to the World Wide Web. They give you up-to-date news, searching tools, shopping, discussion groups, chat rooms, reference tools, maps, yellow pages, e-mail directories, financial news, weather and much more. All of them provide you with a free e-mail account and some give you space to build your own web site.

Most even allow you to personalize your portal so that it refers to you by name and provides only the information that interests you. If you only want scores for the Dodgers and Angels, that's all you'll get. If you want weather for Columbus, Ohio, it's yours. If you want it to track your stocks, it will do so with a 20 minute delayed stock ticker and breaking news on those companies.

At this time there are fewer than 10 major portals. All of them provide the basic services previously listed. The most popular of these include Alta Vista, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, Microsoft Start, Netcenter and Yahoo! America Online is also a portal, but somewhat different as you will see below.

For the past month I have been visiting these portals and letting them play the role of my Home Page. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with any of them as they all provide a comprehensive gateway to the sometimes overwhelming World Wide Web. Here are some of my thoughts:

America Online

AOL is the original portal and is now used by well over 11,000,000 people. It provides a wealth of information including full text of major magazines and newspapers and much more found in the "Channels" on the opening screen. Much of AOL's information is proprietary which means it is available only to AOL users. AOL users also have access to everything that is on the WWW for the same $21.95 per month fee. If you are an AOL user you already know about portals.

E-Mail Accounts

If you are using the Web you are most likely either using America Online or an Internet Service Provider at a cost of around $20 per month. Each of these supplies an e-mail account. So, why would you want an e-mail account through a portal? If you travel, you have already found out how difficult it is to read your e-mail on the road. You need to find an outlet, a local access number and then hope that the phone line does not keep cutting you off. On the road, it is much easier to find someone who will let you have access to the web (libraries and universities offer free access). Once on the web you can go to your portal and access your portal e-mail.

Search Engines

Most portals started out as search engines and this is their strength. Everyone has a favorite. I alternate between Infoseek and Alta Vista. Others swear by Yahoo! I encourage you to try a few of the major ones (see my article in the March/April 1997 issue of The National Psychologist or read it at www.technostress.com) and make up your own mind.

Extras

Several of the portals make it easy for you to customize what you see on your Home Page. I found Yahoo's "My Yahoo!" quite easy to use as well as Excite and Infoseek's versions of this service. Alta Vista offers a unique service where it will translate any web page to and from several languages. You don't have to use Alta Vista to get translations, however, just point your browser to http://babelfish.altavista.digital.com/cgi-bin/translate? and add the url you want translated. I found shopping best on Infoseek and Yahoo! and news best on Excite, Infoseek and Yahoo!

Selecting Your Own Portal

Try the major portals listed in the table below and make your own choice. Alta Vista, Infoseek and Yahoo! are my favorites although Excite was selected as the Editor's Choice by PC Computing in their September 1998 issue. Recently many of these portals have been involved in major acquisition deals. Disney now owns 43% of Infoseek and NBC bought a stake in Snap, a portal created by longtime information site, Cnet. Will this make a difference in the services offered? Only time will tell, but bringing in more money can't hurt.

Alta Vista www.altavista.digital.com
Excite www.excite.com
Infoseek www.infoseek.com
Lycos www.lycos.com
Microsoft Start home.microsoft.com
Netcenter www.netcenter.com
Yahoo! www.yahoo.com

Among the e-mail I received this month was one from James A. Grubman, Ph.D. from Hitchcock Clinic in Keene, NH who asked "Do you have a recommendation about the dictation software out now? ViaVoice vs. Dragon Naturally Speaking? I would need it for doing psych/neuropsych reports and standard office dictation. I am very literate with Microsoft Word and can dictate clearly."

A - Since my article in last year's special technology section of this newspaper (online at www.technostress.com), both products remain top choices and people who have tried them find that with less than one hour of practice they are already at the 90%+ level of proficiency. Their are some subtle differences. Via Voice allows you to dictate directly into MS Word which would help Dr. Grubman while Naturally Speaking has you dictate into its own file which you then have to paste to move into another program. In Naturally Speaking's next version you will be able to dictate directly into Corel's WordPerfect, the leading competitor to MS Word. Another difference is in correcting mistakes. In Via Voice you correct mistakes using the mouse and keyboard. In Naturally Speaking you can also correct errors using your voice, giving you a totally hands-free environment.

Keep those e-mails coming! I will answer all and will try to include at least one in each issue.


Copyright, 1998, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.