ITS TIME TO DEVELOP A WORLD-CLASS PORTAL
The public and private sectors should join hands to develop the much needed national portal
By Syed M. Aslam
Oct 29 - Nov 04, 2001
Much has been done to promote, and we are not talking about an already existing pervading awareness, the IT industry during last one year. Much remains to be done, for instance the development of a world-class portal imperative to attract the world-class attention.
This makes all the more sense for Pakistan as the recent developments in the region and its proximity to the war in Afghanistan turning it into a frontline state has resulted in thirst for news, views and information from the country. This also offers Pakistan a unique opportunity to develop a world-class portal to help promote the national IT industry building a lasting image to make strong impression on the global IT industry.
Before proceeding further we have to understand what portal means. A portal is a website — all portals are websites but all websites are not portal. According to an independent IT consultant Dr Joseph M. Firestone "enterprise information portal definition is a political process ... these are applications that enable companies to unlock internally and externally stored information, and provide users a single gateway to personalised information needed to make informed business decisions. They are an amalgamation of software applications that consolidate, manage, analyze and distribute information across and outside of an enterprise."
Unlike websites which usually offer access to internal source of data and information about a specific topic or limited range on that topic, portal is more than a gateway connecting the users with all kinds of information and data both external and internal plus the links. It provides all the tools such as e-mail, desktop applications, text or text mail, e-business and even critical business applications.
Many IT experts classify portals into four primary categories: the enterprise information portals which connect people with information by organizing large collections of content on the basis of subjects or themes. Collaborative portals enable teams of users to establish virtual project areas or communities along with the tools for collaboration they offer, and to work cooperatively within these communities. Expertise portals link people together based on their skills and expertise while knowledge portals are the combination of the first three plus something 'more' — offering in depth knowledge on limited but specific subjects.
While all websites are a gateway, portals are more than a gateway — many appropriately call them the 'desktop' only a mouse click away on the internet. While portals can be classified into various categories their basic function remains the same — a single point of entry to access information and data combined with e-mail service and social interaction like chatting. They also play a vital role to help encourage, and do, e-business be it individual shopping on the line, B-2-B, B-2-C or any and all kind of services offered through the on-line advertisements, the single top revenue earner to make portal building a sound financial proposition.
People use portals for purposes which are as diverse as the individualities of the users themselves. It is very difference which makes it imperative for the portals to have varied sources of data and information supported by tens of thousands of links to comprehend and navigate. There are 15 million websites and yet a portal like Yahoo is used by hundreds of thousands of people everyday to search, surf and navigate the web.
Besides the various varieties mentioned above, portals can be divided into two primary categories — corporate and public. The two differ in many ways fundamentally; public portals have unidirectional relationship with their users as they tend to attract large number of repeat visitors to build online audiences to sell the products which they advertise on line. Corporate portals, on the other hand, aim to highlight and sell business-specific information.
While Pakistan has many portals — both public & corporate, collaborative and knowledge, information and expertise- it has yet to make even an attempt to develop a internet content portal like Yahoo, the world's best known gateway to the wealth of content on the web on any given subject, topic, industry or socio-economic-political-culture-trend-past time related theme. The virtual absence of just such a portal and the presence of many which hardly justifies the name being devoid of the required browser-based system necessary to provide ubiquitous information like the one by Yahoo makes it all the more important to develop a world-class national portal here in Pakistan.
Then and now
Portals have come a long way in short period of just a decade. While most of the first portals were basically search engines trying to hold on to visitors to show them advertisements. To keep the viewers interested, these portals added content and services such as e-mail and web page hosting (Yahoo still offer free e-mail service while it charges an affordable yearly fee for web page hosting) and also such services as local weather, sports, and news. Their primary aim then was to attract the visitors, make them stay and understand them to better interact with them. The evolution still continues with portals transforming into e-commerce sites, a fact evident from the advertisements with every web page or service you open on them.
Portals make life easier for the users by serving as a one-window operation offering information, services, news, entertainment, and what not supplemented by one-stop shopping center where all goods and services are available under one roof. Portals have become a requirement, a role model, of e-commerce for the corporate world of today. Anyone hoping to engage in e-commerce can hardly afford not to create portals or to form alliances to provide the necessary access to customers and also to information about the customers. This is necessary as most of this customer information is being used for marketing making it all the more important that it should be well integrated from source to source. The role of portals — and their current counterpart 'vortals', the vertical portals which provide in-depth content rather than range of contents like portals — offer special advantages for business-to-business e-commerce because they can provide something which is much closer to the information sought. Vortals are aimed at serving the needs of a niche market be it personal, medicine, industry/service/trade-related.
Talking to PAGE Salim Ghauri, the CEO of Netsol, the Pakistani origin software developers and IT consultant and the only Pakistani company listed on the NASDAQ, said the 'need for a world-class Pakistani portal is critical.' Elaborating further he said that the tragic events of September 11 has changed the world forever and the world alliance against terrorism and a serious war in our neighbourhood does not go well with any business at all, including the IT industry and software exports.
Calling the information available on Pakistan as 'always been sketchy', Salim said that most of Netsol's customers have been receiving only the negative information from the media. 'Unfortunately bad news always sells more newspapers and commands more minutes on the television' which makes us all the more concerned 'as most of our customers search the net for information on the country where we are established before doing business with us.'
Salim said that there are just a handful of portals which do provide information on Pakistan and its industries which makes it all the more important to develop a world-class Pakistani portal to balance the world view with up-to-date on all aspects of life in Pakistan.
Shehryar Hydri is the senior marketing executive of Islamabad-based software house, the Elixir Technologies Corporation. When asked about his comment on the importance of developing a national portal, he said that 'I feel any portal from Pakistan has to have an objective and international feel to it, yet it should also be the primary resource that comes to mind whenever we need ANYTHING on Pakistan.'
PAGE also talked to Omar Khalid, Assistant IT specialist e-Business Solutions, at the IBM here in Karachi to better understand the technological and financial aspects of developing a world-class portal. Omar said that there are comprehensive world-class portals like Yahoo and e-Bay that highlight the need for developing a national portal which serves many purposes including many intangible benefits. In today's world a national portal is an imperative that can not be ignored to market and build a positive image of a country to the rest of the world.
The immense increase, he said, in the use of internet users worldwide, the drastic increase in the volume of e-commerce and the potential which it has, the borderless opportunities of trade — be it individual, corporate or industrial — and the comfort to shop from one's own home or office have transformed portals from being dressed-up search engines to multi-billion dollar propositions. Portals bring millions of people to the web, and to the advertisers which have seen it rewarding to advertise on the portals, the value of which will increase as their relationships with customers grow.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide use portals everyday to seek information, retrieve or send free e-mails, to chat, to search or to surf explains the important role that a portal play in the wired world of today. They can narrow their choices and searches, can get informed and entertained, chat real-time, get the latest news and developments in all fields and sectors.
Omar attributed the success of Yahoo and e-Bay the globally known portals, on their 'first mover advantage' and their resilience to attract and hold on to users irrespective of the financial losses they suffered in the initial years. Today unlike many of their competitors which has either disintegrated altogether or are not as active as itself Yahoo is not only breaking even financially but are also showing a profit. So what are the financial dynamics of a portal which is a costly investment to make not only in terms of technology but more so in the case of professional workforce to not only see that it is available 24-hour a day but also that the contents are updated.
Omar said that portal can be defined as a 'website to start our day' and is fast becoming an essential tool for the knowledge workers. And so is the case of most of us who have to lock onto Yahoo whenever we open our PCs and mobile phones. A good example is the national portal developed by Singapore- www.sg, which provides detailed information, news, services and industry as a single-point entry into the country. The success of www.sg could be a role model for Pakistan to develop a national portal to promote the country and enhance its image in the wired world of today, Omar added.
He said that a website in the classical definition of the word is not a portal as it is not a single-point entry, one-window access or everything under one-roof.
Omar said that developing a world-class national portal is a costly project not only because of heavy initial investment in technology and infrastructure but also in terms of recurrent expenditure on professionally qualified workforce and staff to see ensure smooth running of the system and the updating of immense content of text, data and multimedia content. The investment in technology and infrastructure can be a costly affair, however, despite the cost developing a national portal is a must for Pakistan to be a part of the wired world of today, Omar added.
He said that decent attempts have been made by the private and government sectors to set up portals in the country including the one like web directory which is good. However, much is needed to develop portals which meet internationally accepted standard of sources, links, navigation and surfing plus other value-added services to meet the classical definition.
Omar mentioned that a very successful private portal Rediff was built totally by IBM in India. IBM also built e-chemicals.com, the largest transactional portal automating and serving as the largest chemical industrial supply chain backbone in the world. In addition, IBM which has long history with the Olympic Games dating back to 40 years signed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee in 1993 to become a worldwide technology partner to the Games. It agreed to provide IT solutions and systems through the year 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics. During the 17-day event which was attracted participation of 199 countries, 10,321 athletes, 15,000 media personnels, 40,000 volunteers, 8 million sold tickets and 3.5 billion television viewers, IBM recorded 6.5 billion hits on its Olympic websites. This means an average 382 million hits a day.
Calling the development of a national portal as a single point entry to all information available on the country as imperative, Omar said that the government can play an enabling role to help build a sound hi-tech, low-cost and universally acceptable infrastructure. He further said that bandwidth should not be used as a benchmark for fixing the prices of the telecommunication services, the life blood of IT. In fact, he said, globally the bandwidth prices are on a decline as the telecommunication authorities the worldover have find ways to neutralize the effect by offering a number of value-added services to supplement the revenue. He stressed that bandwidth prices should be further reduced to promote IT industry in Pakistan.
But coming back to the point: What discourages the public and the private sector to invest in developing a national portal which offer tremendous tangible as well as intangible advantages? Omar attributed it on the absence of a 'critical mass' making the proposition a financially unviable project, particularly due to a comparatively longer duration to make a profit.
Despite massive public awareness at all levels and among all segments of the society and the increased number of PC buyers and internet users Pakistan still reels from a low PC penetration and internet use due primarily to a low per capita income and purchasing power which is on a constant decline. What, however, is encouraging is that Pakistanis as a nation like spending hours on the web not unlike they do on the mobile phones. While the 'critical mass' may not have been there the amount of time spent on internet neutralizes the impact to a considerable extent.
In addition, the thirst for knowledge, among the youth in particular and all other age groups in general, makes it all the more imperative to set up a national portal providing world-class information and services. Certainly, having a national portal also have benefits to provide useful information about the country and its various industries to promote the country overseas to best assuage misconceptions and disinformation.
While there have been individual efforts, both by the public and private sector, a concerted collective effort should be made to develop a national portal for the benefit of not only the IT industry but for the country as a whole. A good model to follow would be Singapore whose www.sg provides comprehensive information, links and data about the country not only for the benefits of its citizens but also the world at large.
A range of websites are developed by the public and private sector alike. Many of the government departments have a website and so are all the multinational corporations and large number of local businesses. However, the absence of an enterprise information portal, a browser-based system which provides ubiquitous access to vital business information like the internet content portal Yahoo, is the need of the hour 'with a single gateway to personalized information.' This would allow the users to 'start their day' with the country specific data.
The public and private sectors should join hands to develop the much needed national portal which is an amalgamation of software applications that consolidate, manage, analyze and distribute information and data across and outside an enterprise, which in this case would be Pakistan. Certainly in this communications era where information travels at much bigger speed than sound, the lack of will and resolve to set up a national portal irrespective of the price tag which it may carry hardly makes any sense.