Yes, I realize this is a very provocative statement. However, I do believe that the notion of a portal as it exists today is on the path to obsolescence in the same way the walled garden (e.g. AOL) concept became obsolete during web 1.0.
Mike Arrington, over on TechCrunch, has been chronicling the every growing list of Ajax desktops with a great deal of skepticism. I generally agree with Mike on most things, but at times I think he is a little lazy in his analysis. What he fails to do is ask himself why this is happening? Like Mike, I don't think all these players will survive, but I'm most interested in exploring the reasons for why some of them will survive.
Back in 1999, I was a Program Manager on the MSN.com site. I was responsible for the module on the MyMSN home page. I spent most of my time trying to convince internal team (e.g. HomeAdvisor, Expedia, Investor, etc.) to use our SDK to build modules of their own, and working with external providers (e.g. New Your Times, etc) to build personalized modules on the home page. Each of these content providers had to spent a considerable amount of time doing one-off integration to pump their content into MSN. Back then, things we consider pedestrian today, like stock quotes, weather, news, were the main reason consumers used portals.
There is no way the NYT could (or would) do all this work with an unlimited number of portals. So the few big players (like MSN, Yahoo, Lycos, Excite) had an advantage by offering their users this content.The world looks a lot different now than it did back in 1999. One reason - RSS! I have to admit I was a little late to really understand the impact RSS would have on the web as a whole. I do what a lot of technical minded folks do, I looked at the mechanics of it and thought it was clever but not a big deal. I was wrong and RSS is a driving force that is really changing the entire fabric on the Internet as we've known it.
RSS is also the reason why the portals as we've come to know them are dead. With content providers syndicating their content via RSS, the huge expensive, complex, one-off integration has gone away. Now users can simply use their Ajax desktop of choice or blog reader to subscribe to feeds - bang - instant portal. It was my own usage behavior that helped me realize this. I realized one day that all the content on my MyYahoo page came from 3rd party sources via RSS. The only things Yahoo provided were stock quotes, sports scores, and weather.
This is why folks like Netvibes are making traction. The portal game is now focused on filtering, aggregating, and bringing gadget developers to your platform.