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The Truly Personal Web
The next generation of personalized web services are about to hit your radar screen. The ones who win will be those who figure out how to offset the risk (or perceived risk) of privacy violations with functionality that customers truly value.
Early versions of personalized web services consisted of tailored news stories, stock quotes, and catalog recommendations brought to you by your cookie file and some clever backend work by Yahoo, Excite, Amazon and the like. These infomediaries created value for readers (and shareholders) by providing consolidated views of filtered information. Second generation services like When.com, eGroups, and Excite Communities let you build and manage your own information stores or communities of interest.
The next generation will go much further, extending the web into truly personal information, and providing application services to help you understand and manage that information. Two new companies are notable examples of this new breed of personalized web services: VerticalOne and PayMyBills.com.
VerticalOne, recently profiled in The Red Herring's must-read Catch of the Day, offers a service (co-branded through portals and other destination sites) that will consolidate consumers' personal account information into a single view. Imagine My Yahoo offering not only personalized stock quotes and news headlines, but also a view into your bank accounts, your credit cards, your brokerage positions, your frequent flyer programs, and more. You provide the account numbers and passwords, and VerticalOne does the rest -- pulling the appropriate information from the online account provider's website, and building a single, consolidated view that gets appropriately branded and wrapped into the portal experience.
Scary, eh? You give them your account numbers and passwords, and they give you a view into your financial life. VerticalOne claims that their service will "fundamentally change the way [consumers] will use the Internet." It won't fundamentally change the way you interact with any of your accounts, however, since you'll have to click through to the bank, brokerage firm, credit card company or airline to actually do anything.
PayMyBills.com doesn't promise to change the way you use the Internet, only the way you pay your bills. Their service is deceptively simple: you change your billing address on your frequently paid bills to a PayMyBills PO Box in Virginia; they receive your bills, scan them into PDFs, and send you email when they're ready for review online. From their site you can review balances due, print out hard copies for your files, and authorize payment. The kicker, though, is being able to schedule automatic payments based on rules you define, like "if my phone bill is less than $100, just pay it automatically," or "if I haven't paid my credit card bill and it's due in fewer than five days, send the minimum amount automatically."
PayMyBills and VerticalOne both consolidate personal and sensitive data. And both require the consumer to trust a relatively unknown startup to keep their private information private. But in my mind, PayMyBills wins the customer value game hands down. VerticalOne solves a "problem" that people didn't really know they had: not being able to view their bank balance alongside the weather forecast. PayMyBills, on the other hand, has the potential to transform a painful, paper-intensive process into a point-and-click, exception-driven experience that frees up weekend mornings for more interesting things. Like sleep.
Other pieces about personalization: