A Pair of Portals Prepare To Help John Q. Public
A Pair of Portals Prepare To Help John Q. Public<@VM>Pennsylvania's PA PowerPort<@VM>Unisys Community Portal<@VM>Microsoft Is Talking, States Are Listening
By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer
Two new electronic government initiatives are expanding the vision of government portals by making them gateways into a vast array of community and business services.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge last month unveiled the PA PowerPort, a statewide portal designed to give citizens and businesses online access not only to state government information and services, but also to city and county governments, schools, businesses and local organizations.
Calling it "a one-stop shop for all the information we need," Ridge said PA PowerPort would provide citizens with road maps and weather information, personal e-mail accounts, hometown news, online Yellow Pages, homework assignments from schools and other links to communities throughout the state.
Meanwhile, Unisys Corp. is creating an ambitious new online service called the "community portal." Designed for cities and communities of less than 100,000, the community portal would be a single point of entry linking citizens to the local government, businesses, schools and other non-profit groups and events.
Officials at Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys expect to announce the first pilot city for their revolutionary program within two to three weeks.
These two initiatives offer a glimpse into the government portal of the future, whose functions and services go beyond the traditional boundaries of brick-and-mortar government. In addition to linking citizens to government, these programs promote e-commerce, improve technology in the schools and other organizations and enhance the online connections among public and private enterprises.
Pennsylvania in February selected Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., to set up the new state portal and provide some of the initial services. Microsoft will provide the state with $100,000 worth of consulting services to develop the overall portal strategy and Web page design.
The company also will provide some of the initial portal services, such as an online Yellow Pages of Pennsylvania businesses, an online Blue Pages of state government resources and e-commerce assistance to businesses under a program called the PA Small Business Network.
Microsoft's partnership with Pennsylvania is the company's first large-scale foray into portal building for the state and local government market, said Philip Moyer, who is heading up the company's PA PowerPort effort. (See related story) The portal is expected to come online by April with full services implemented within a year.
The PA Small Business Network will be established as a subscription-based service that Pennsylvania businesses can use to tap Microsoft's expertise in setting up Web sites and laying the infrastructure for electronic commerce. Pennsylvania officials envision that the cost of the service will be low, perhaps $200 to $300 a year per business, but will enable businesses to participate in the expected explosion of Internet commerce.
"We wanted to help jump-start e-commerce in Pennsylvania, particularly small- to medium-sized businesses," said George White, the state's program manager for PA PowerPort.
As a related service, Microsoft also will help local governments design portals and lay the groundwork for e-government applications. Of approximately 2,500 cities and townships in the state, only about 300 have a Web presence today, Moyer said.
The state already has initiated a number of online applications, such as a trucking permit system and another called "Pennsylvania ? Open for Business," a one-stop site where businesses can register, file applications, pay fees and comply with state regulations. These services will be integrated and "hung" on the new portal, White said.
Ridge also announced that he intends to spend $20 million this year creating additional applications that can be added to the portal. These applications either will be developed in-house or bid out to industry.
"Our goal is to make Pennsylvania the easiest place to establish a business and do e-commerce," White said.
While PA PowerPort attempts to tie together an entire state, the community portal developed by Unisys aims to connect small cities and communities. Like the Pennsylvania project, the community portal would strengthen business and community ties while enabling local governments to provide online services to citizens.
Unisys officials have visited and talked with leaders in 10 U.S. cities during the past several months to find the best locations to test the concept, said Phillip Saxton, national director of e-business development for the company.
Saxton, who is heading up the initiative, said the program will include a bundle of Web services:
? Unisys will create a portal that will be the point of entry for citizens to connect with their local government, businesses, schools and other non-profit organizations.
? Unisys will offer a portfolio of Web services to these various public and private organizations. For government agencies, it might include e-government applications, such as paying parking tickets, fines and taxes, renewing licenses or obtaining permits; for businesses, it could be hosting Web sites or enabling e-commerce transactions.
? At the same time, the company will provide thin-client Internet appliances free to citizens and businesses that subscribe to a monthly service that includes broadband access to the portal and access to computing software on a Unisys computer server farm.
One of the most important benefits to the community will be economic, Saxton said. The Unisys program will help drive Internet shoppers to local businesses, the ones that pay city taxes, bring jobs to the community and buy Little League uniforms.
"Governments and business leaders are concerned about money flowing out of their communities to dot-com companies and not getting anything in return," Saxton said.
People, of course, could leave the community portal and shop at online stores outside the city, but there would be plenty of incentives to shop locally as well, he said. The portal would carry advertisements of local businesses. Residents would feel more comfortable buying from stores they know and where they would be able to return merchandise easily if necessary. And Unisys could provide these companies and local banks with e-commerce capabilities.
Unisys intends to make money from the venture in a variety of ways, Saxton said. The company would charge a monthly subscription fee for access to the Internet and its software server. Local businesses likely will pay transaction fees when people buy their goods and services online. And governments might pay for Web applications and other services.
But many of the precise details of how the program will operate and pay for itself will be worked out in the pilot programs. The concept could be replicated in retirement communities, universities with dormitories and apartment communities, Saxton said.
The idea of building a community portal has been discussed by many business and government leaders, but Unisys appears to be the first large systems integrator to offer this all-encompassing service, said Tom Davies, a senior vice president with Current Analysis Inc., Sterling, Va. While attractive in theory, there is still a question whether the business model is viable.
"You have to get the whole community on board for everything to click," he said.
Unisys is one of the leading systems integrators in the state and local government arena, with estimated revenue last year of more than $500 million in this market. The company had overall revenue of $7.5 billion and earnings of $511 million in 1999.
Saxton and others on his team met with Lawrence Weinbach, Unisys chief executive officer, Feb. 28 to select at least one of the cities and to decide how to move forward with the program.
One of the cities under consideration is West Chester, Pa., but Saxton declined to reveal the others. The plan is to select one city from the West Coast and another from the East Coast.
IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., one of Unisys' chief competitors, announced in mid-February its own strategy for building e-government portals. While IBM's approach is not as broad as the community portal, the company nevertheless is offering a large portfolio of services to state and local governments.
And like Unisys, IBM officials emphasized that government officials should use their e-government strategy to further other goals, such as bolstering the local economy.
This is clearly what Ridge has in mind with the PA PowerPort.
"It will make Pennsylvania employers quicker than their competitors," Ridge said in announcing the project in February. "Through the PA PowerPort, they will be able to take their businesses online in one week, when it takes their competitors months."By Steve LeSueur
Microsoft Corp. is looking to expand its presence in the state and local government market by using Pennsylvania's PA PowerPort project as a showcase for the company's software products.
"We haven't done a good job in the state and local market, but during the past six to 12 months we have dramatically increased our focus in this market," said Philip Moyer, who is leading the portal project for the Redmond, Wash.-based company.
Pennsylvania officials last month selected Microsoft to build an enhanced portal and provide a number of new online services for Pennsylvania. Microsoft helped win the contract by offering to provide at least $100,000 worth of consulting services to the state as part of the deal.
Other competitors were SAP AG of Waldorf, Germany, and a team of Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., and the National Information Consortium Inc., Overland Park, Kan.
"It's intriguing that Microsoft is building the portal for free," said James Macaulay, a government market analyst with Dataquest, a research arm of the GartnerGroup Inc., Stamford, Conn. "It establishes a reference account and gives them a foothold in this market."
The rising importance of the state and local government market for Microsoft also was underscored by the way the contract was unveiled, Moyer said. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's president and chief executive officer, talked live by videoconference with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge when Ridge announced Feb. 8 the partnership with Microsoft at his annual budget speech to the General Assembly.
Microsoft's role as the lead consultant in the project caught some industry observers by surprise. The $19.7 billion-in-annual-revenue giant is known primarily as a software company that usually teams with systems integrators in these types of projects.
Moyer said the company does not generally intend to compete with portal vendors, but saw the Pennsylvania project as an opportunity to demonstrate some of its software products, such as Windows 2000, its SQL server database and commerce server products.
"At the core, we are a software company," he said. PA PowerPort can "give people a vision of how to use our software."