Portals Get Really Personal

SAN FRANCISCO (04/03/2000) - "Have it your way." I always liked that idea when Burger King hawked it, and I like hearing it now from firms promising to serve up the Internet your way, on a single Web page.

Companies such as OnePage.com Inc., Yodlee.com Inc., and VerticalOne Corp. are taking personalization far beyond the horoscope and local weather reports that you get from veteran offerings such as My Yahoo or My Excite. The new entrants give you free access to your bank account, credit card account, bills, investments, and frequent flyer miles, as well as to your Web-based e-mail accounts--all on one Web page.

Each personal portal meets your needs differently. Yodlee and VerticalOne act as agents, accessing and retrieving account information from scattered sources on your behalf. Both reformat the content and package it neatly in one place.

In contrast, OnePage.com lets you mix and match portions of any site onto one Web page. It can aggregate parts of Web sites, letting you peek at your bank balance alongside your child's school lunch menu. Its closest competitor, Octopus.com, offers a more limited set of options.

Currently, fewer than 5 percent of Web surfers use even the most popular personalization services, such as My Yahoo, that have been around for years, says David Card, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications.

But take a good look at the new offerings; you might like what you see.

VerticalOne and Yodlee: Package Deals

VerticalOne and Yodlee both let you grab and aggregate content from all of your password-protected online accounts. Each displays the content in one spot, so you need not log on separately to, say, your Visa account and your bank accounts.

VerticalOne doesn't offer its service directly. Disney's Go Network, for instance, cobrands a version of VerticalOne called AccountKeeper, which taps more than 300 financial online services, as well as e-mail providers. You can also use VerticalOne through sites such as IVillage.com and online broker Ameritrade's OnMoney.

Yodlee is available directly from its Web site and through Net partners such as AltaVista, which offers a free cobranded service called My Accounts. Yodlee differs from VerticalOne in that it not only gives access to financial information, but also to personal Internet accounts--including e-mail, news, travel services, and shopping accounts.

VerticalOne says it has a competitive advantage in its tight links with financial institutions, which go beyond Yodlee's.

A Personal Pain

Getting started with either service was simple. All it took was some demographic information, and I was ready to go.

My first concerns were security and privacy. Although I was assured the tools are nearly hack-proof, I was leery of entrusting one Web site with so much of my personal data. But trust wasn't the biggest obstacle: That was setting up online accounts with my credit card company, electric utility, and others, which was a time-consuming hassle.

It would have been best, of course, to set up those accounts first. If I had previously signed up for access to my Visa account, for example, I could have just given Yodlee or VerticalOne my user name and password.

The good news was that Yodlee and VerticalOne gave me access to nearly all the companies with whom I do business: Bell Atlantic, AT&T, two credit cards, and even my local electric utility. The bad news was that setting up those accounts took nearly three hours. So it may be six months before the convenience of visiting VerticalOne to view all my accounts will make up for the time I spent.

Worse, after spending 30 minutes at my bank's home page to set up Web access to my account, I found that Yodlee can't access it. Extra security measures at my bank's Web site prompt me to answer randomly generated questions like my mother's maiden name or my zip code. Yodlee can't anticipate the right answer when its robots attempt to log in for me.

Note that some banks put an outright ban on outside services accessing customer information, due to concerns about misuse of customer information (and the banks' own fears of a less crucial role for themselves). Secure Commercial Service recently settled a lawsuit that North Carolina's First Union filed over accessing account information without consent.

Overall, I preferred Yodlee's diverse links--which led to sites such as EBay, Expedia, and Amazon.com--to VerticalOne's superior financial tricks.

Both Yodlee and VerticalOne offer microbrowser access to your accounts via wireless devices such as Web-friendly mobile phones and the wireless Palm VII--a nice touch for the mobile crowd, but not one that I checked.

OnePage.com Fits All

If you're familiar with Octopus.com, you can see where OnePage.com starts.

Still in beta, Octopus.com lets you create customized views with content from partner sites. Categories include Investing and Business, News, Cool Info, and Reference. You browse a category, find the content you like, and then drag-and-drop the subheading into your Octopus.com page. The page displays a box that is linked to dynamic Web content such as movie listings or sports news.

OnePage.com, which won't be publicly available until the end of April, takes that concept much further.

Using a beta version of OnePage.com, I created a personalized page combining headlines from my hometown newspaper, a log-in screen to my bank account online, and a link to a live auction on EBay that I could use to monitor bids.

OnePage.com's technology automatically divides Web pages into sections based on layout, images, headlines, and HTML-based tables. For instance, it intuitively divvied the PCWorld.com main page into five pieces. From those pieces I added the "Today's News" section to my OnePage.com account.

OnePage.com works with any type of Web content, from search engines and weather maps to the local Little League schedule. If you need help rounding up content, you can pick from its list of 14 predefined categories.

The service still needs work. Parsed pages didn't always split the way I would have liked. And it would also be nice if OnePage.com could automatically log me into my password-protected sites the way VerticalOne and Yodlee do.

But if you hunger for complete freedom in Web content, turn to OnePage.com when it's finally released.

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