So pardon my need to be human as I share this intuitive sense about the long-term future of a business sector that currently dominates our space and headlines: the Web portals.
The Web portals, specifically Yahoo, Aol and MSN, in their simplest forms, are Web sites. Web sites make money selling impressions generated by visitors turning page views. These impressions are packaged in unique ways to fulfill an advertiser's campaign objectives, but every deal sold, regardless of how it is paid for, depends on visits, page views and impressions.
The largest slice of a Web portal's page view pie is derived directly or indirectly, from users reading and responding to personal emails. MSN and Aol serve display ads throughout the email experience, Yahoo does not (they used to), but all three are revenue-dependent on their extremely high number of visits per unique, which is driven by their users' need to "just check my email." That's why Aol made everyone repeat "you've got mail" -- but now, if you're a Web portal, "you've got a problem."
Once kids flip open their first cell phone, they stop reading their email. It's that sudden. For this demo, communication occurs initially through texting and then onto Facebook. Email is rendered at worse obsolete -- and at best, lags well behind these other two more provocative communication options. Which means page view counts within the portal's email applications and overall visits per unique from this younger demo will literally vanish from the portal landscape.
But before the portals perish, they will flourish further as the economy lifts enough to afford market leaders to advertise like one. The portals' home page daily buyouts will sell through at a healthy clip, their search revenue will remain steady, their non-direct advertising sales revenue will climb, and the battle for portal supremacy will continue for the foreseeable future.
So Yahoo strategists will continue to try to convince the stock market their company matters. They'll also try to convince themselves their home page redesign isn't a complete disaster (a user who selects a "full page" setting is met with a cascade of rollover-induced, pop-up menus forcing a content buffet down his throat. No wonder Google gets so much credit for doing absolutely nothing on its home page.).
And Aol strategists will continue to build distance between themselves and well, themselves, as they launch and promote content properties that siphon traffic from their hub while minimizing any brand association to Aol -- whose brand currently brings to mind a woman named Mimi playing Mahjong in Miami.
All while MSN glides on relatively unnoticed, except for the shiny new Bing it sports around its search neck. Ahh, but a tiger can't change its stripes. It appears as a new Windows Live user where Hotmail now lives; the design and functionality are effectively encouraging me to use my home page on Windows Live the way someone would use their Facebook home page: as a launching pad for all communication within a social network. Gates strikes and his opponents always seem happy to take the hit. That minority investment appears to have paid off for this ruthless genius.
All three portals will continue their extensions into congruous business lines like ad serving, ad networks, ad exchanges, or the "ad dollars for content you want us to write exchange" announced recently by Aol. Regardless of what direction each portal heads, this battle will ultimately produce one winner: the portal that buys Facebook -- or more likely, gets acquired by Facebook.
Until then, there remains plenty of success to drone on about at industry conferences and on quarterly earnings calls -- before the Web portals' collective core business falls off a cliff, when the Boomers log off and no one is there to take their place.