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Software firms cash in on portal trend

Companies that once made their living selling shrink-wrapped software to Fortune 1,000 firms are now looking to cash in on the corporate portal stampede in a rapidly shifting market.

Companies that once made their living selling shrink-wrapped software to Fortune 1,000 firms are now looking to cash in on the corporate portal stampede in a rapidly shifting market.

Software makers, including a pile of start-ups and old-line companies like Lotus Development, are now pitching their products to companies looking to build both internal and public Internet portal sites.

It's all about ease of use and making corporate data as easy to work with as a typical Web site. For instance, the E-Portal Suite software from Viador is a browser-based system that provides access to business information in the same manner that Internet content portals like Yahoo act as gateways to content on the Web.

In general, the portal software these companies sell can combine "unstructured" information, such as Word documents, Web pages, and other text-based content, with "structured" information, such as that contained in corporate databases and other back-office systems. The whole package is then delivered to users through a Web interface.

That's a valuable tool for companies building both internal corporate portals for employee use and for e-commerce and other Net start-ups looking to quickly stake out their Internet turf. Ready-made portal software from these companies can be easily customized.

Viador, which started out as an analytical software maker, is using its specialty in data analysis to give it a competitive edge in the portal software market.

Other companies, including Cognos, which started out building business intelligence software, and Wall Data, a database tool developer, are targeting the portal market with new--and repackaged--products.

Even groupware giant Lotus Development is recasting Notes/Domino, its bread-and-butter product, as a corporate portal system to help it boost revenue.

More and more intranet software companies are interested in selling portal software, because that segment is going through a generation shift, say analysts.

"This is a natural evolution for these companies," said Judith Rosall, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group. "The semantics are hard to pin down, but we see this as the second generation of the intranet. The corporate portal is an extension of the intranet."

As this trend has developed, companies which traditionally sold software that enabled users to access databases and other stores of information have looked to the growing corporate portal market to reap new revenue by tweaking their older products to fit into the hot new market.

But not everyone is caught up in the excitement. Just because a product collects information from a variety of sources and displays it on a single interface doesn't make it a portal, say analysts.

"Renaming a product doesn't mean it is a portal solution," said David Folger, an analyst with Meta Group. "If you extend the user base of your product beyond just specialists or analysts to general people with an easy-to-use interface then you've got something," because the market for the product widens.

The desire by companies to jump on the corporate portal market is not limited to intranet software makers.

Internet players such as Netscape Communications are tapping into the portal pool as well, hoping to put their content and services on business desktops. Netscape, for instance, has offered Custom Netcenter services to businesses since early this year.

Corporate portals come under the wider spectrum of knowledge management software, which has become a catch phrase in the software industry. During the past two years knowledge management has been heavily touted as a new strategy by Lotus, and more recently by Microsoft.

It is on this "KM" plane where Lotus and, to some extent Microsoft, have also begun touting portal-like features within their seasoned groupware products, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange.

This spring, Microsoft began showing off a portal-type technology that could allow a user to combine elements of the Web, such as stock quotes and news, with corporate resources, such as email and internal sales data. Dubbed the "Digital Dashboard," the tool is essentially a customized version of the company's current Outlook email client.