The big deal about portals

by Toby Ward — Portal products still represent a green, emerging technology. The promise of success however is still overshadowed by many pitfalls and few success stories.
Frankly, I don’t see it. There are very, very few portal product implementations that live up to the hype.
IBM and Microsoft’s successful intranet portals are rare exceptions amongst portal software implementations. You would think that IBM and MS, since they developed the product and have nearly unlimited staffing expertise – not to mention deep pockets – would make darn certain their respective portals are successful. They are in essence their best sales tools.

Most however companies don’t have the resources and expertise. There are a few exceptions. The Fidelity Investments portal looks to be an exception to the rule (see their upcoming webinar Intranet Insider World Tour: Fidelity Investments). But despite all the salesmanship and marketing, portal products have been wildly disappointing.

But what is a portal? If you listen to most definitions driven by the vendors, a portal is an off-the-shelf (out-of-the-box) software product. Don’t let the vendors fool you – you don’t need a portal product to have a portal. I’ve seen and worked on plenty of solid portals that are built on content management systems (CMSs). Corporate portals, enterprise information portals, and corporate work portals are all vendor products. But a portal – without the preceding technical descriptors and jargon – is a gateway website to many disparate sources of information and data; it isn’t necessarily an off-the-shelf software solution.

Portal products continue to be hot topics of discussion and it certainly held the attention of the 150+ attendees who listened to my keynote presentation on portals at Ragan’s annual Web Content Management Conference in Chicago.

Portal products promise a lot:
  • Better internal communications
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Increased collaboration
  • Improved operational effectiveness
  • Decreased cost of information
  • Improved competitive/market advantage
  • Single point of access

Some of the common, universal features of portal solutions include:
  • Integration components (APIs)
  • Customizable gadgets or portlets
  • Search
  • Personalization
  • Basic content management
  • Collaboration tools
  • And increasingly more web 2.0 features
The benefits and advantages of portals however are often tempered by pitfalls. Problems abound.
“The long-predicted shakeout in the portal product market is becoming evident. Extreme due diligence should be performed before buying a portal product,” stated a Gartner report called “Portal Products: A Market in Distress.” The report is several years old now, but the caution still holds true today.

“Enterprises painfully discover that portal solutions are much less out-of-the-box than expected. Many face challenges due to misaligned requirements, underestimated implementation costs, or overestimated user adoption rates,” states consultant Janus Boye in CMS Watch’s 2nd Edition of the

Enterprise Portals Report released in October (2006).
The report not surprisingly cites portal vendors for many problems including:
  • Usability challenges
  • Complicated, dashboard interfaces
  • Non-standard code
  • Accessibility failures
  • Too many features and gadgets
  • Poor design
In a separate, recent presentation the author says that he does not recommend buying and implementing a portal product for the vast majority of organizations.

Of course, it’s not all bad. Portal products have gotten better and aim to improve further. But not all portal products are created equal. Some serve niche markets, others are better for integrating back-end systems and business intelligence, still others are better at document management and content management.

There is in fact hundreds of portal vendors. I created the following ‘magic quadrant’ to highlight or showcase some of the players including the big boys, the challengers, innovators and niche players.

Prescient's Portal Magic Quadrant

Note: this analysis graph does not constitute a full or deep analysis. It is a snapshot in time based on product reputation, review and corporate strength (financial viability) and it only considers a small percentage of the vendors. Nor does it represent an exhaustive analysis of any of the products.

Additionally, what is relevant today may be soon out of date. Technology is rapidly changing and evolving and the vendors know they must continue to improve and innovate.

Some trends to watch as customers demand improvements and vendors continue to evolve:
  • Continued blurring between portal & CMS products
  • Further market consolidation (mergers, acquisitions, etc.)
  • Increasing focus on usability
  • Easier to implement personalization (including role-based personalization)
  • More Web 2.0 (blogs, wikis, etc.)
Portal solutions aren’t bad. They’re just young, green and striving to find their legs. In the meantime, caveat emptor.

Toby Ward is the CEO and founder of Prescient Digital Media. Download his Finding ROI Whitepaper or read his weekly columns and case studies at