For years, Microsoft's ads have asked us, "Where do you want to go today?" Now that question has changed to "Where do you want to start?"
For most of us surfing the Web, that means a home page - and a lot of people are spending a lot of money to entice us to make their home our home.
These new "portals," or "hubs," or "communities," or whatever the marketers want to call them, are mega-Web sites that provide quick access to Internet search engines, free e-mail accounts, news wires, travel agencies, real estate listings, phone directories, stock quotes, maps, weather, TV guides, shopping, entertainment, chat rooms and classified ads.
Most will allow you to personalize your opening screen, with the type of news you're interested in, local weather, and stock quotes from the companies you follow.
Some of these portals were built by the big Internet search engine companies - Yahoo, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos and AltaVista, which have expanded far beyond their original purpose. Others are the Web sites that most of us land on because our Web browsers were designed to go there first - Netscape, Microsoft and America Online. They've also grown beyond their original role - technical support and marketing.
All of these outfits are busily mating with entertainment companies and TV networks, which figure that as long as you're going stare at a computer screen instead of watching their advertisers on TV, they can get a shot at your eyeballs online. In fact, hardly a week goes buy without another major expansion or a multimillion-dollar deal.
For example, Disney recently bought a 43 percent stake in Infoseek, one of the early players in the search engine business. Infoseek, in turn, is making its presence felt in motion with local Web site hosts such as WBAL radio in Baltimore.
In June, NBC acquired a 19 percent interest in Snap!, the Web portal created by CNET, and dispatched four top NBC executives to mind the new project. You may also remember that Microsoft and NBC got together a while back to set up the MSNBC Web site and cable channel.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is bulking up with something called MSN Internet Start, a mega-site that will include news services and direct links to the company's Expedia travel bureau, CarPoint auto buying service and Investor pages.
Eventually, this is where Internet Explorer will take you when it starts up the first time.
Across town (digitally speaking), archrival Netscape has gone into the Web portal business big time, with its new Netcenter. This site, by the way, offers news from ABC - a division of the same Disney outfit that just hooked up with Infoseek. You can expect the new version of Netscape Navigator - released for testing last week ` to have enhanced multimedia features that will work only with Netcenter (and certainly not with Microsoft's Web site).
The wonderful thing about all this confusion is that you have so many of choices - and they're all free. While these companies would dearly love to charge you for their services, no one has ever been successful at it. So they depend heavily on advertising and fees from content providers who want to do business with you. To make this work financially, they need to get you to start your day with them and stick with them.
The problem is that most Web surfers stay with the home page their Web browsers were tuned into when they were installed - Netscape, Microsoft or AOL. This may be the result of laziness or inertia, but I it's just as likely the result of ignorance. Most people don't know how to change their default Web page - the site your browser loads automatically when you fire it up.
So try out a few Web portals and find one that suits you. On the surface, they look very much the same, but each has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. And you don't have to hook up with one of the big players. Lots of people like to start their day with a local Web site that concentrates on community news and affairs (The Sun's is www.sunspot.net). Once you've found a site you like, here's how to make it your default home page:
Using Internet Explorer: From the top menu bar, select View, then click on Internet Options. In the box that pops up, you'll see a blank filled in with the home page you're currently using. Type in the Web address you want to use and click OK.
Using Netscape Navigator: From the top menu, select Edit, then click on Preferences. In the box that appears, type the address of the home page you want and click OK.
Here are some portals and their addresses:
Pub Date: 7/27/98