A few years ago search engines like Webcrawler, Alta-Vista and LookSmart where the most popular homepages that users selected. It was from there that most of their forays onto the web started.
Then the search engines started to turn themselves into portals to try and emulate the earlier successes of CompuServe and AOL - which in part lead to the success of Google who declined to join the features race and kept a philosophy of a very lean homepage that did one thing very well.
The Portal+Search paradigm (I love that word, so '90s) worked well when the web was dominated by the large, resourced media companies who brought us our news, sport and weather and gave us a hopping off point to search. Yahoo!, MSN and sites like CNN became the logical choice to have as your homepage if you wanted more than search - after all, they all had a 'search the web' box fairly prominent (usually powered by Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Alta-Vista or one of the many that where part of the search engine arms race).
The rise of user generated content - the blogsphere, podcasts, rss and the whole Web2.0 community - is changing the landscape yet again.
Sure, I still care about world news, local weather and upcoming movies. But there are also half a dozen blogs that I like to keep an eye on (some personal, some company mouthpieces) as well as keeping track of all those sites that keep track of things for me (eg Del.icio.us), find stuff for me (eg digg) or just plain entertain me (eg YouTube).
That has created a new market for smart, open, inclusive portals that can help aggregate content from all over the place (mainly thanks to the wonders of RSS, but many support an API that allows people to build gadgets / widgets to suck data in and present it in a variety of ways). Similar to the concept pioneered by the folks at Konfabulator (now Yahoo! Widgets) but as a hosted service you can access from any web browser.
It's hardly a surprise that the incumbent portals are adding this functionality (sometimes in a limited toe-in-the-water fashion, in others whole-heartedly embracing it) but it's fun to see how some of the new aggregation portals are stacking up.
Google have managed to keep their light touch with their personalised homepage. Seach is still central, and if you're scared by all this new content it's really easy to go back to classic Google. Microsoft have made a good opening salvo with the new Live homepage (after a pretty shaky start in beta I'll admit to being quite pleased with the current incarnation even if it is still a little light on gadgets and pre-defined feeds)
What's really interesting though is seeing some of the new players appearing on the scene. My current favourite is NetVibes. They have a great set of tools and a really slick Ajax interface and seem to be rolling out new modules and functionality on a weekly basis (and having just raised a $15m investment probably isn't going to hurt). If you don't like NetVibes then there are many others! PageFlakes is another new but rapidly evolving DIY Portal creator with a different look and feel.
I'm curious to see how this is all going to shape up over time. Will one of the new players rise to dominance because they've got the right presentation and a capable product (like Google did - appearing pretty much from nowhere to dominate search in a very short time) or will one of the big players (Microsoft, Google or Yahoo probably being the logical choices) come up with a de facto standard for widgets that can roll out on aggregator portals and desktop PCs and then it's just down to whose ID service you want to use to sign in with...