Programmed personal homepages over the last 20 years

The web is changing, but it all starts with your personal home page. What is the first thing you see when you start your browser? Is it useful and tailored to you, or a collection of advertisements and meaningless promotions for portal services? The recent $15 million funding of one-year-old startup Netvibes combined with the ramp-up of Microsoft’s Live.com and iGoogle are changing the worldwide web doorway into a customized experience combining many brands and services. In this post I’ll summarize the history of pre-programmed start pages and take a look at where we might be headed in the near future. I’ll follow-up with customizable start pages in another post.

Online Welcome Pages

Quantum Link homepage

In the beginning there were welcome pages from online services such as Quantum Link (pictured above). The site broke your available in-network options into easy to understand categories such as shopping, news, and chat. At connection speeds of 1200 bit/s and limited online content there were few options available.

AOL Welcome page 1999

As the web gained steam online welcome pages were able to add a few topical links such as the news of the day. The image above is taken from AOL dial-up in 1999 and shows links to popular features such as e-mail, people, and the Internet. The page contains two advertisements, one seasonal message, and two news of the day entries for AOL’s 20 million users. Every user of the service is logged-in and personally identifiable down to their street address and phone number.

Portal pages

Yahoo homepage 1994

Early portal pages such as Yahoo! (pictured above) organized the web into categories for easy discovery. The site did not produce much content of its own, but served as a guide and filter to the growing Web. Almost everything was new and users could suggest a new site for inclusion in the directory.

Yahoo homepage 2006

Twelve years later there are billions of documents on the web and over 100 services offered by Yahoo. The new homepage highlights the Yahoo! services you use the most and featured dynamic content from around the network such as top news and trends float to the top. The page contains two advertisement blocks, one text and one graphical, but all other content keeps you within the network.

Programmed personalization

Websites are able to collect information about a user’s location such as zip codes for a logged-in user or an approximate location based on an IP address for anyone. Personal accounts on websites commonly collect birth date, gender, marital status, and geographic location for ad targeting, but such information can also be used to target other content such as a weather report, news, or sports scores.

Yahoo information about you

The new Yahoo! homepage includes mail and weather info buttons unique to a logged-in user, providing a peek into your personal Yahoo. This customized information is placed directly above the most valuable advertising spot on the page.

Summary

Programmed personal homepages are a lightweight way to summarize site features and dynamic content for a large amount of users. Customization takes a bit of heavy lifting, and programmed personal homepages can scale well with the same content available for hundreds of millions of users accessing a site such as Yahoo! or MSN.

Will the programmed homepages survive as users move to pages they build themselves or pages pre-loaded with content from a specific community? That’s a topic for a separate post, so stay tuned.

10 comments

Commentary on "Programmed personal homepages over the last 20 years":

  1. sgentzen on wrote:

    Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon but the first thing I do on a new profile or new computer (this happens a lot since I work in IT), I set the browser’s homepage to blank.

    I can’t think of anyhing that I’d want to see (and wait to load) every time I open a new browser window. All of the browsers that I use now (Safari, Firefox and IE7) have a search box at the top so I don’t need to bring up a search engine in the main window anymore. What could I possibly want to see every time? If I want portalized information on stuff, I’ll go to my custom Google page or pop Dashboard if I’m at home. I do that maybe twice a week.

  2. Greg Linden on wrote:

    Interesting tidbit here. The vast majority of My Yahoo users do no configuration at all; they use the default, non-personalized page.

    The problem with customizable pages is that they require work to set up. The vast majority of people are unwilling to do work.

  3. Niall Kennedy on wrote:

    Scott,
    I agree, and also have a blank page when loading my browsers. My mom prefers to see a page when she loads, it’s like her web dial-tone.

    Greg,
    Agreed. I plan to address the customizations and their various forms in a separate post.

  4. Mike on wrote:

    The notion of an Internet portal has always – all the way back into the ’90’s when portals were The Big Hot Thing – made me think of the scene in Blazing Saddles where they set up a Toll Gate in the middle of the desert to slow the Bad Guys down. In the case of Internet portals, I guess they just slow down the ignorant. Oh, and get them to pay a toll.

    Having tried any number of the “web2” start pages, I still don’t get it.

  5. Marshall Kirkpatrick on wrote:

    Thanks for this history. I know I live in net news wire, techmeme and gmail – probably ought to take the time to put together some combo of all that functionality, perhaps for mobile. but with a gagillion switches between apps and tabs a day,not sure the first one is so important.

  6. matt on wrote:

    as a compromise between the “blank page” and the “yahoo/google/etc etc etc” home page, i just make my own and set that to load when i open a browser. it’s got the main set of links i generally hit each day and gives me a central location that i control as opposed to some hokey ad-ridden space.

  7. xtracto on wrote:

    blank page + Internote in Firefox is all I need :)

  8. darius on wrote:

    well good, but short article. i think five more years after this info and screens will be as historical relics for new generation :)))

  9. Jason Hart on wrote:

    A few years back, I wrote a quick JavaScript to randomly load up one of 20 or so pages I frequent. That way each time I open a browser window I get something different but something I’m interested in.

  10. Stuart Vallantine on wrote:

    A brilliant article. There is something missing though: some reference to its natural predecessors, the Viewdata and Videotex systems of the late 1970s.

    Prior to Quantum Link, there was also Micronet 800 and Compunet (Commodore 64) on the old 8 bit machines, and Prestel.