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Portals to profit
The Internet--including its World Wide Web-is the fastest growing communications medium in history. Millions pf people use it every day to access information, for entertainment, and to buy and sell products and services. New web 'portals' in Puerto Rico make it easier for users to find what they want-fast.
Harnessing the power of the Internet
New tools help Internet users in Puerto Rico zoom in on the information they want and need.
February 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.
With the number of Internet users growing by leaps and bounds, this new communication medium has transformed in the past few years from being a government-education tool used by a handful of technicians to a full-blown mass communication medium spanning the globe.
But what makes the Internet a hot item is the enormous amount of information it can access and how this content is presented to the users.
By the end of 2000, more than half a million users are expected to be surfing the Net in Puerto Rico. In two more years, that number will be over 700,000 users making the Internet a media force to be reckoned with to reach business people and consumers. And as computer prices drop and technology becomes more affordable and accessible, an increasing number of companies will face the challenges of capturing user attention, enlarging their market, or opening new markets.
The Web Evolution
In the beginning, what we know today as the World Wide Web was populated by millions of pages focused on very narrow themes. Users would spend hours looking for information on the Internet, but at least this structure was better than looking at static text, which was how the Internet functioned for years before the Web was created. But even with the help of web search engines like Yahoo and AltaVista, the Internet made a simple search a frustrating chore.
As time passed, companies with big Internet plans figured out that making useful communication tools out of their websites would require the creation of websites people would like to visit. This, in turn, would also make their sites attractive to advertisers, helping increase online e-commerce sales and advertising revenues at the same time.
The first websites--even major commercial ones--still lacked the broad reach that regular paper-based media (magazines and newspapers) have. The result was a floating user base that didn't visit sites continuously.
What was needed was websites that users would access frequently--even better-websites that would become their first stop every time they logged onto the Internet. This led to the development of web portals.
Portals carry large amounts of varied information appealing to broader audiences. From local information--like news and weather--to e-commerce, stocks, and activities, they're designed to provide what users need in a single place. And their information is updated constantly, which helps assure repeated visits. Web portals are also very effective in capturing users from specific regions.
Web portal emergence has been a slow process. The largest Internet websites have only changed their strategies and descriptions to those used by web portals during the last two years.
Sites like Microsoft's MSN and America Online (AOL) led the portal race since they are also Internet service providers (ISP), and already had large pools of users accessing the Net through their networks. Once Web users log onto the Internet, they can access any site anywhere in the World.
Web portals and Puerto Rico
So where in the web portal ladder does Puerto Rico stand?
It could be said that it is taking its first steps. But this could change rapidly with the launch of various new portals and others in the pipeline. Puerto Rico has lagged behind the States in terms of telecommunications and Internet developments. And recent Y2K concerns stalled most web presence plans, at least until the problem was sorted out.
But with Y2K gone and Puerto Rico boasting the highest income and Internet usage per capita in Latin America, things are bound to get better.
PRStar.net can be classified as the grandfather of local web portals. It was develop by the government of Puerto Rico and brings together government agency information and local news on the same site. The plan is to join all government agencies and municipalities on the web portal in order to offer public service functions.
"We are going to help municipalities and agencies offer services through the Internet," said Jorge Aponte, director of the Office of Management and Budget. "We don't want static websites. It's time we move to the next phase and provide more than information through the Internet. People should be able to perform transactions with the government. But the initiative has to come from the agency or municipality."
Aponte also added that the government's plan to equip schools, teachers, and students with computers is aimed at preparing future generations for the new Internet world being developed today.
Local companies are starting to wake up to this new market and already three Web portals have been launched on the island, with others being developed. "We will be presenting plans to 25 local companies for developing Internet presence and web portals," said Gerardo Martinez, president of Oracle Caribbean. Oracle's software is used by the 10 largest web sites in the world.
"Using the Internet for internal operations can also reduce costs drastically. This is an added benefit of embracing the Internet," added Martinez. "Oracle decided to implement this operational model for its company, and now 80% of all transactions are done through the Internet; eliminating paper, reducing costs, and saving time. It's a function that can easily be linked to web portal or site deployment, making it attractive to companies."
The year 2000 looks to be the year of the local web portals. The first portal to be launched with local content and base in Puerto Rico was Zonai.com. This portal is a product of El Nuevo Dia's Virtual division who is in charge of all the company projects on the Internet and headed by Carlos Nido, who use to be the general manager of the daily Primera Hora. The launch was in early January 2000. Puertoricoclub.com, another portal base in Puerto Rico, followed the launch of Zonai.com. NetPremium, a local Internet solution provider company headed by its president Eric Bonici, developed this web portal.
The third local web portal, launch at the beginning of February, was Casiano Communication's PuertoRicoWOW.com. "Our goal is to provide an user-friendly product that is also useful to all Internet users on the island and abroad," said Manuel A. Casiano, chairman of the board of Casiano Communications Inc. "We expect within two years more than 700,000 Internet users in Puerto Rico, most of them login into PuertoRicoWOW.com at least once a day."
All of the three portals base most of their content on things relevant to users in Puerto Rico and people that want to learn more about the island. Zonai.com and puertoricoWOW.com have a natural advantage over the competition since the parent companies already produce vast amount of content for industry leading magazines and newspapers and it's easily transported into electronic format.
According to industry sources, locally based portals with Puerto Rico-specific content will have better acceptance than the current crop of Latin portals.
"Portals based in Puerto Rico are right for the market," said Martin Taylor, general manager of Microsoft Caribbean. "They will provide information local users are looking for without having to filter unnecessary content."
Local portals are expected to also supply a link to outside information portals and search engines.
Internet Use in Puerto Rico
Last year, advertising agency Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi revealed results of a regional study it conducted on Internet use in Latin America. It showed Puerto Rico has the largest user per capita in Latin America.
The study found that Puerto Rico's 450,000 web surfers made up a user to population ratio of 1-in-9 people that overshadowed the 1-in-52 inhabitants ratio present in the rest of the Latin American region. Latin America has between 10 and 12 million Internet users among its population of 500 million.
"The study confirms that we are in the middle of a revolution affecting all areas of our lives. The magnitude of its impact is similar to that of the Industrial Revolution, but its effect can be felt faster than ever," said Angel Collado-Schwarz, Chairman of Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi. "Puerto Rico's per capita Internet penetration places it in a position of leadership within the region. This scenario forces us to change old paradigms and dive into the 'new economy'," he concluded.
Even though Puerto Rico boasts the largest number of Internet users per capita, the island is still lagging behind the States and some European countries. And e-commerce has been slow to enter the market at a level that will make local e-commerce viable.
"Puerto Rico missed out on what can be described as the catalog years, when people would buy things over the phone, without seeing them," said Martin Taylor, general manager Microsoft Caribbean. "This made the jump from purchasing at stores to purchasing through the Internet even harder for local users. Web portals don't suffer from this syndrome as long as they don't focus on e-commerce."
But understanding what people do and look for on the Internet is essential to attract them into websites. Last year, Prof. Ivan F. Irizarry from Inter American University completed an in-depth research on Puerto Rico's Internet users.
"The main reason for the study was to build a profile of the typical Internet user in Puerto Rico," Irizarry told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. " Over the past years, we have seen studies on the number of people using the Internet, but never describing its users. This is invaluable information for companies wanting to enter e-commerce. The time to jump into the Internet is now, if companies don't want to be left behind by their competition."
A significant number of Puerto Rico's Internet users belong to the academic environment, maybe because until 1995 the government and academic institutions used the Internet exclusively to exchange data.
Data from the study reveals that the educational level of users is high. Of all people interviewed, 62% have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, 16% are professionals, and 26% hold a management or administrative position.
As for income, 13% earn under $3,000, 32% between $10,000-$24,000, and 31% over $30,000. "The higher the income, the more disposable income persons have to spend on non-commodity goods. This makes the Internet segment in Puerto Rico a very attractive market for products and services," added Irizarry.
Of all the respondents, 37% spend over seven hours a week on the Internet, and 27% spend two to three hours a week. More than half--53%--access the Internet between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and 29% between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m.
"The number of people connecting between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. shows that people are starting to switch from time usually spent watching TV to time spent on their computers. Because of this, one can't avoid considering the Internet as a modern media for reaching markets. As more people get connected to the Internet, the number of users will be too big to ignore" said Irizarry.
Spanish enters the Internet
Portals targeted at the Hispanic population like StarMedia, Terra.com, and Yupi.com have also entered the market, catering to users who prefer Spanish to Internet-dominant English.
"StarMedia is a way to re-unify Latin America, it's a cultural platform," said Fernando Espuelas, CEO and Chairman of StarMedia. "The Internet is an excellent way for all people in Latin America to discover the many thing they have in common. StarMedia provides a meeting place with a common language".
StarMedia's web portal provides free content and services to the Spanish-Portuguese community worldwide. Over 1,300 articles are published on the site daily from diverse Latin American news sources and publications.
Company revenue comes from advertising. Locally Santander Bank, Oriental Bank, Budweiser, Pepsi, and Warner Lambert are some of their list of clients.
"We have two revenue tools: advertising and e-commerce," said Espuelas. "Over 90% of our revenue comes from the advertising side of the business. Puerto Rico is an excellent market for using the Internet as a direct communication medium with consumers."
One obstacle for the fast growth of the Internet in Puerto Rico is the lack of broadband services. Broadband allows users to connect to the Internet at blazing speeds, which are presently reserved for large companies with dedicated line connections.
Two emerging technologies directed toward home users that are starting to be deployed on the island are asynchronous digital subscriber line (ADSL) and cable modems. The Puerto Rico Telephone (PRT) will launch ADSL this summer.
ADSL works like a full-time digital connection direct to PRT's central offices, providing high-speed Internet access, ranging from 8 to 1.5 megabytes per second (MBps) downstream and 1.6 MBps to 640 kilobytes per second upstream. It also allows users to receive or make phone calls while accessing the Internet.
"People are requesting increased speed to experience the Internet's full potential," said Andrew Hunkin, PRT data communications director. "Competition among telecommunication companies is also heating up, and new technologies give us an edge over our competitors."
Contrary to actual dial-up modem connections ADSL doesn't require dialing a number for connection because it's local area network connection is always on. This guarantees full-time connection and makes the busy signal a thing of the past.
ADSL promises even more speed in the future as well as extended reach. "The service could handle speeds of 52 MBps in the future, reaching as far as 3,000 feet from the central office," said Roberto Correa, director network engineering for PRT. "Of course, this speed is only attainable if the server and connections on the other side are able to deliver information at that pace."
The other technology--cable modems--use existing cable TV infrastructure to deliver Internet content at speeds similar to ADSL. A few local cable companies have been testing the service, and it's expected that the service will be mass market this year.
Other Internet access options are digital broadcasting satellite (DBS)--like DirecTV's DirectPC service--and wireless. The DirectPC system works by sending the data request through a regular telephone line and the high-speed response received through the satellite dish. Presently, the system is not available in Puerto Rico, but it's expected to be launched in a not so distant future. Wireless Internet access is exactly what the name implies--a connection into the Net without the need of telephone or dedicated lines, bypassing PRT's local network.
With so much bandwidth, video over the Internet is a possibility and downloading large data files, images, or computer programs will be fast. E-commerce will also receive a boost with the new speeds.
Hunkin commented that once people have access to the new breed of broadband services, the Internet and e-commerce would flourish.
The Internet is filled with information but getting to it is the trick. Portals attract web surfers by making information readily available in a single place coupled with other features that enhance the web experience. Following are some web portals:
www.prstar.net (Puerto Rico-based)
www.puertoricoclub.com (Puerto Rico-based)
www.puertoricowow.com (Puerto Rico-based)
www.starmedia.com (Latin market)
www.terra.com (Latin market)
www.yupi.com (Latin market)
www.zonai.com (Puerto Rico-based)
ActiveX - Microsoft technology designed to enable easier multimedia on the Web. ActiveX controls can be used in Java to create multimedia effects. For now, that means that when you go to Web sites, buttons can light up and sound effects can play when you interact by clicking or moving the pointer over things.
Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) - This is a new technology that is the phone company's answer to cable modems. It supports fast data speeds over regular copper wire.
Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) - A networking protocol designed to move multimedia data around with high reliability and speed. Some Internet Service Providers (ISP) use ATM as the protocol for their backbones.
Bandwidth - This is a measure, in some amount of bits per second, of the amount of data that can be sent over a particular cable, interface, or bus.
Hit - When a user requests an HTML document on the World Wide Web, the server records that request as a "hit." Some Web servers also count each graphic on that page as a hit. For example, if you look at a page with five images on it, some servers count that as five hits.
Homepage - A homepage is a page on the World Wide Web (WWW) that is the first page of a website. When you go to a Web address, this is the first page your browser looks for.
- a hyperlink, or simply link, is part of the HTML language. When
you view an HTML document using a browser, it is common practice
to display the hyperlink in blue with an underlined font. When
you click on a hyperlink, you will jump or link to another area
in that document, or a different document.
Internet - The global network of computers constantly connected to each other using standardized communications protocols, specifically TCP/IP.
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) - The first of the chat rooms, or networks of computers that host this chatting protocol. There are thousands of channels (or rooms) and hundreds of thousands of people within. There is a channel for any interest you could have--it is simply a matter of finding the name. You need to use an IRC client to get to them, but as long as you have an Internet connection, you can get hooked in.
Internet Service Provider (ISP) - An ISP provides Internet access to people or corporations. ISPs generally have pools of modems awaiting dial-up connections. Smaller ISPs buy bandwidth from larger ISPs.
Search Engine - This is the software used to search for information within a given website with a database of other websites and the information they contain. Since the Web is such a large place, it is handy to go to search engines when you can't find the information you are looking for. (Yahoo! and AltaVista are search engines.)
Webmaster - This is a blanket term that refers to the person responsible for running a website. It is associated more with server management and HTML coding than other Web development, such as CGI scripting.
Web portal: A portal is a Web site that offers a broad array of resources and services, such as e-mail, forums, search engines, and on-line shopping malls in order to attract large amounts of Internet users. The first Web portals were online services and Internet service providers (ISP), such as AOL, that provided access to the Web. These websites aim to be the first place a web surfer visits each time they connect to the Internet and their home page.
Website - This term describes a particular company's, users or organization's web pages served up by a web server. It may be split across multiple servers or addresses, but it is one group of HTML pages with a particular association.
World Wide Web - This is basically a particular means of communicating text, graphics, and other multimedia objects over the Internet. The requester must use a browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator) to receive this data.
Puerto Rico Internet users facts:
Fifty-six percent of all Internet users have made an on-line purchase, including downloading computer software.
These users have bought items an average of five times per year and have spent approximately $380.
Annual e-commerce Internet sales for Puerto Rico were estimated at $31 million for 1999. In the United States, annual sales are about $12.9 billion.
If the current trend continues, the Puerto Rican Internet population could grow to over 550,000 people during the year 2000.
Source: Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi
Web portal features
Web Portals offer a lot of information but it's the extra features that really make them special. Following are some of the most common features and their description:
Personalization: There's nothing better than getting only the news or sports scores that you want. With personalization features, you don't have to sit through boring issues or scores for teams other than your favorites. With almost all portals, any topic imaginable can be personalized to reflect your interests. You can usually turn off features you don't desire--such as local lottery numbers--and decide how much of other "channels," or topics you do want to see. Everything's highly customizable. To personalize a portal, look for a button or link that says "personalize" or something similar.
Free e-mail: With e-mail, you can send electronic messages to anyone else who has an e-mail address. Addresses look like the email@example.com. The most alluring free service, free e-mail accounts, are Web-based. This means that any computer with a browser and Internet connection can be used to check messages from anywhere. Free e-mail is also handy for those who change their Internet service provider frequently.
Directory/Content Channels: These aren't the same as TV channels, but the idea is similar. Basically, these are directories or guides to information and are grouped by general topic, such as Arts & Entertainment, Science, and Lifestyles. Each channel may contain original content, links, and other material.
Stock Quotes: Simply type in the ticker symbol of any stock you want to track, and you'll be able to see real-time price changes. Keep track of as many stocks as you want, and these stock trackers will even calculate the value of your portfolio.
Chat: E-mail is fun, but for some people "chatting," or e-mailing with one person or an entire group in real-time, is even better. Chat is immediate: You type it and away it goes instantly to the person you're chatting with. Chat can be one-to-one or even a special-interest group discussing, say, health care. Chat can be used for multiple purposes.
Maps or Driving Directions: If you've ever seen a site called MapQuest, you already know what this feature does. Interactive maps/driving directions are incredibly useful. Say you want to take a trip in the States. Just type in your beginning and destination addresses, and the directions will be calculated for you: distance, roads, and driving time! Not only that, but you have the option of printing out your itinerary and taking it with you for the easiest road atlas possible.
People Search/White Pages: Trying to track down a long-lost friend or find a loved one's phone number? More often than not, you can do it with a portal's People Search feature. Type in the name of the person along with other details like the state they call home, and you'll get the most recent address and phone number in the service's database. The listings aren't always current, but it's often a good starting point. It's also fun to see what your listing says about you and how much privacy you have.
Yellow Pages: With online yellow pages, you can easily find a store that sells that hard to find item or find someone to fix your plumbing problem. Fill in your home address and you'll get back a listing of laundries, theaters, restaurants, etc. near your home. Plus, you can find any business on the island by filling in a search form. Say you're visiting relatives, and you need to know whether a certain store is near them. With online yellow pages, you can find out, without having to pay to call information.
Games: Many portals offer Java-based or similar games, like chess, checkers, poker, etc. They're fairly rudimentary, but if you are a die-hard checkers fan, you'll love this feature. Play against a friend or a total stranger.
Free Home Pages: Stake your own claim in cyberspace. Personal publishing has been called the wave of the future and will significantly transform the way we share news and information. You can ride the wave by having your own free Web site thanks to portals. The content is also used to help sell advertising and commerce throughout its network of members.
Community Builders: Community builders, or clubs as Yahoo calls them, are a combination of free Web sites, message boards, and chat sites. Construct your own online interest group and use bulletin boards or chat to further advance your cause or foster communication among your group.
Classifieds/Auctions: Buy or sell collectibles or other items online for free.
Contact Manager: Manage your address book, e-mail addresses, calendar, and even faxes all in one convenient place.
Related Software: Several portals have converted part of their searching technology into software products you can download and run from your browser. This category also includes the browsers themselves (Netscape's Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer).
Specialty Searches: The ability to perform special searches, such
as searching in Spanish, searching for photos, or kid-friendly
searches, can greatly enhance the utility of a portal.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
For further information please contact www.casiano.com