Week of August 7, 2000
  Editor's Choice Web Pick
   of the Week

PA PowerPort: A Pioneering Portal,
but Microsoft Link Clicks on Some Controversy

The highly touted PA PowerPort (www.papower.state.pa.us), the first U.S. statewide portal, has now come online, and it's a solid site.

At the same time, though, the Pennsylvania portal raises some significant questions that are sure to repeatedly pop up in the warp-speed evolution of e-commerce.

The promo drumbeat for PA PowerPort began in earnest in February, when Gov. Tom Ridge's budget speech trumpeted the portal to serve Keystone State businesses and citizens. The beta version, Ridge said, would likely go online in April.

"Beta Version 1.0," it turns out, made it online on June 1. (Unfortunately, construction schedules for real estate-related Web sites and real-life buildings sometimes have more similarities than we would all prefer.)

An Inordinately Broad Info Palette

Ridge noted, "PA PowerPort will become part of our everyday lives . . . a one-stop shop for the information we all need. Think about it -- road maps and weather, your own e-mail account, local hometown news, online Yellow Pages, even today's homework assignments for your children's class.

"Just as important," Ridge added, "it will make Pennsylvania employers quicker than their competitors. Through the PA PowerPort, they'll be able to take their businesses online in one week when it takes their competitors months."

Ridge's sweeping vision is reflected in this PA PowerPort beta version. The home page is divided into eight major clickable categories:

  • "Government in Pennsylvania";
  • "Business in Pennsylvania";
  • "Citizens";
  • "Living in Pennsylvania";
  • "Working in Pennsylvania";
  • "Visiting Pennsylvania";
  • "Learning in Pennsylvania"; and
  • "About Pennsylvania."
Also included are clickoffs to Pennsylvania newspapers and TV and radio stations.

Expanding Businesses: How Well Served?

That extraordinarily broad palette is generally a strength.

There's much to praise in portals that effectively organize a broad range of electronic information and services. Likewise, there's much to applaud in integrating a broad range of state agencies and services. Too many other states are still fragmented in their online incarnations -- which may pump up officials' turf-centric egos, but does nothing good for users. PA PowerPort gets high marks on both those points. The site looks like it will provide significant benefits for both citizens and in-state businesses -- particularly those just now going online.

The site's broadness is a major part of those benefits. At the same time, though, that broadness could potentially present a problem for businesses that are not in Pennsylvania, but are considering a Keystone State location. Pennsylvania already has an excellent site devoted to expanding businesses: the "Pennsylvania -- Open for Business" cyber-address (www.paopen4business.state.pa.us).

Therein lies the potential problem. Some expanding businesses may go to the very broadly focused, highly publicized PA PowerPort rather than Pennsylvania Open for Business, which is far more custom-tailored for expansion needs.

That potential for confusion could be a problem. As underscored at the New York World Congress of the International Development Research Council , timeframes for expansion projects are continually compressing, adding an addendum to the old adage, "You can't be too thin or too rich." Online, you can't be too clear or too speed-friendly.

State's Techno-Savvy Precludes Conclusions

Those concerns, though, may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Pennsylvania's government, after all, has already established itself as a leader in adapting to the e-conomy.

Ridge, for example, signed the nation's first model e-commerce digital-signature legislation into law in December. And the governor, who six years ago became the first state candidate to disclose campaign contributions on the Internet, has pledged to make some 12,000 campaign-finance reports of candidates and PACs available online this year. Similarly, PA PowerPort will provide the nation's first online "Blue Pages" - an Internet database displaying state and local government offices for all of Pennsylvania.

With that pedigree, this reviewer's concerns about user confusion may prove unwarranted. Given Pennsylvania's techno-lineage, state officials may have no trouble in making it crystal clear to users whether PA PowerPort or Pennsylvania -- Open for Business best suits their needs.

Microsoft Hookup Clicks On Controversy

A more concrete issue for PA PowerPort is the unexpectedly intense to-do that it's created vis--vis government's proper role in the e-conomy. Microsoft is donating US$100,000 of consulting services and is responsible for the PA PowerPort site framework -- the first such agreement for Microsoft.

The site is certainly well designed and has lightning-fast functionality. The Microsoft relationship, though, has drawn fire from some quarters.

Particularly stringent criticism has come from the Pennsylvania Internet Cooperative (PIC at www.aboutpennsylvania.com/powerport), which has mounted a massive online attack. Says one of the PIC's broadsides, "The state is getting essentially free service for marketing Microsoft's products here. . . . What is the role of government here? . . . Ask online newspapers, Web developers, Web hosting companies, e-mail providers, etc. They'll let you know if they see this as competition."

"PhillyTech" magazine has also reported extensively on the contretemps.

"I doubt that if the state would have chosen SAP America (which competed with Microsoft for the deal) that it would have tried to offer free e-mail, news feeds and Web-development work," Wayne Kessler, a Web developer at Mechanicsburg, Pa.-based Kessler Freedman, told "PhillyTech."

It would be easy - way too easy -- to label this is a Keystone State concern. The Net economy, though, has turned old boundaries into dinosaurs. This is the kind of issue that we'll all have to work out.

PA PowerPort is a pioneering site in its own right. And it also now seems to have become part of the broader pioneering in the Internet's evolution.



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