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Putting the muscle of the Internet
to work for you.By Michael J. Rosencrantz

Usually, Internet users visit a number of sites, manually retrieving information on a haphazard basis from each site as needed. While this approach yields adequate results, it is time consuming and frustrating when seeking continually updated or time-sensitive information.

A number of companies have developed software, such as PointCast and Marimba, to solve this problem. Using a technology called "push" that "broadcasts" or "webcasts" the content, a variety of information arrives periodically and without asking, on the user's desktop to be read, copied, archived, or ignored. Offering a wide selection of content, users can receive continuous updates of stock prices; world, national, and local news; company and industry data; and a host of other information. Currently, this approach offers mainly information: news, stock quotes, and the like. New applications, however, will include software upgrades, bug fixes, and other computer-related material, delivered directly to the desktop. Several companies have already started moving in this direction.

Although this sort of content delivery is similar to the familiar broadcast model of television and radio or the publish-subscribe system of print media, there is one obvious difference. Traditional broadcasts and publications are not customizable. Nightly news broadcasts cannot deliver in-depth coverage of events in the Northeast to one viewer and comprehensive coverage of international politics to another. Push technology can accomplish this.

Generally, content on the various services is separated into channels, allowing users to select the information they wish to receive and that which they do not. When updates are delivered, only the selected channels deliver the new information, decreasing update times significantly, especially with products such as Marimba's Castanet, which offers over 100

Most of the content contains hypertext links as well, allowing users to go out onto the Internet and browse past reports on the topic or related web sites.
For example, during the Pathfinder mission to Mars, stories
contained links to such sites as NASA, Mars Pathfinder, and other astronomy pages. Some packages include their own web browser; others utilize the user's browser. The packages that contain their own browser allow the user to decide which browser to use. Browsers included with most packages are perfectly capable of viewing basic HTML documents but may lack the ability to view more advanced pages properly. Using an up-to-date web browser as the default readily eliminates this drawback.

How It Works

All the products reviewed require at least one piece of software. Some employ the standard Web browser to deliver the content, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Others use their own proprietary software or software that is an add-on to the user's web browser. Even the screen saver is used by some to display the content, and others use a combination of all three.

The software allows the service to be configured as to when new information will be delivered. Of course, users with direct Internet connections will have the advantage of continuous updates. Most Internet users, however, connect to the Internet using a modem and will need to configure the service to update in a manner consistent with the way they spend their time online. Some of the packages only update the information when the user's modem or Internet connection is idle.

Push vs. Pull

Whether the service uses its own software or utilizes the software already installed on the user's computer, information is either "pushed" or "pulled" to the user's desktop. The distinction is minor and nearly invisible to the user, but it does affect how and when information reaches the desktop.

Push. Services that use push technologies deliver the content in a form ready for distribution. The service makes contact with the user's software and pushes the content onto the user's desktop.

Pull. Information that is pulled arrives on the desktop at the request of the user. Most packages allow for configuration, for example, pulling new information when the user logs on for the first time or at regular intervals while the user is connected.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The main advantage of using webcasting services is saving time. The amount of time and effort required to visit the number of web sites containing the content the webcasters offer is considerable. Using webcasting tools, a user receives all this information as it becomes available, at regular intervals, or when the Internet connection is inactive.

The other advantage is organization. While a user could visit all the necessary web sites to gather this information, in the end, the information will be stored in a number of different files, with links to sites around the world. Push and other webcasting technologies organize the information in one place, either the vendor's own software package or within the user's web browser. The information is sorted and stored in its own channel, greatly simplifying finding data on a given subject.

Webcasting, however, has its critics. Many feel that online delivery of bulk information goes against the spirit of the Internet--seeking and retrieving information from the sprawling network as it is needed. Others feel that sending out mass amounts of information over the Internet, much of which will be ignored, is a waste of bandwidth--a valid concern for users of today's increasingly crowded Internet.

Another criticism of Internet broadcasting is content quality. Webcasting products are only as good as their content, which is provided for the most part by third parties. Someone seeking specialized information may not realize other important sources are being overlooked. Others feel the content providers are holding back, giving away lower quality information in the hopes of luring users to their premium services.

The Providers

AirMedia Live Internet Broadcast Network. The only provider that requires special hardware to use its service, AirMedia Live truly broadcasts information. Using a special receiver called "NewsCatcher," AirMedia Live transmits updated information throughout the day and alerts the user as new information arrives. Content is broadcast via satellite, eliminating the need for an active Internet connection. Users only need to leave their computer on to receive updates.

Channels on AirMedia Live include the general news providers that most webcasters offer, including CNN, UPI, US Newswire, the Weather Channel, and a host of other news, sports, and entertainment channels.

For financial information, the company offers a number of high-quality sources of information:

* American Banker, Thomson Publishing's trade magazine for the banking industry,

* Forbes, featuring selected content from the printed version of the magazine as well as content produced for distribution online, and

* Quote.com, a service providing in-depth investment information--including news, real-time quotes, earnings estimates, and mutual fund information.

AirMedia Live requires the purchase of the NewsCatcher receiver (SRP $99.00), Windows 95, and a 486 processor with at least 16 megabytes of RAM. The NewsCatcher purchase price includes the AirMedia Live software and one year of free service. After the first year, users can select plans costing either $5.95 or $9.95 per month.

AlphaConnect. Concentrating solely on business and investment information, StockVue, and a newer product, BusinessVue, provide information through a standard, dial-up Internet account.

StockVue allows users to set up multiple portfolios and have the software track and update the value throughout the day. Users can also set StockVue to sound an alarm if certain user-defined prices or trading volumes are exceeded.

BusinessVue, provides news and financial information on selected companies. Users can track the latest news and financial information from various sources--latest SEC filings, news releases, as well as links to the selected company's home page.

Both products require a 486/66 or faster processor, Windows 95, and 16 megabytes of RAM. The StockVue software is free, BusinessVue costs $129.95.

BackWeb. Offering free software, BackWeb (currently in version 2.0) allows users to subscribe to a variety of channels in 18 general categories. BackWeb employs a "polite agent" saving bandwidth by making BackWeb updates the lowest priority.

Information arrives as "InfoPaks," initially, in the form of a "flash." The flashes can be in four forms: InfoFlash, SoftwareFlash, wallpaper, or screensaver.

When an InfoFlash arrives, a small graphic appears announcing that new information is available. If the user clicks on the graphic, a second level of information appears, giving more detail. A third, very detailed level appears by clicking on the second.

SoftwareFlashes deliver software, upgrades of software, or bug fixes. After receiving software, the user has the option of installing, saving, or deleting the software. BackWeb merely delivers the software; the option of actually installing the program is left to the user.

BackWeb also allows the user to receive wallpapers and screensavers from selected channels. Multiple files are allowed, so the user could alternate between screensavers offered by one channel and those of another.

The user interface resembles an e-mail package. Selected channels appear on the left, with another window listing the available flashes and their status. Users can activate particular flashes by double clicking on them in the interface.

The BackWeb client is free and available for Windows 95, Windows NT, and Macintosh operating systems.

Castanet. Marimba's Castanet requires a software package dubbed a "tuner," which is available for the asking from the company.

Castanet's claim to fame is that it is programmed completely in Java, a fairly new programming language that allows developers to create programs that are not dependent on the user's operating system. For example, the same Java program could run on both PCs and Macintosh computers.

Castanet offers a variety of channels, many of which contain software programs--for example, WallStreetWeb, which monitors user-defined portfolios with a number of charts is available. Another channel, go2vision is a customizable desktop window and WWW browsing companion that displays stock quotes, real-time sports scores, and headline news. It also allows users to search the Internet while browsing with other applications.

Downtown. This product, offered by inCommon, offers a short list of channels containing general news and weather information, mainly from large newspapers such as USA Today and The Los Angeles Times. The unique aspect of this product uses push for a slightly different purpose--keeping you up to date with your favorite web sites. The software, which resides on the desktop in the form of a toolbar, displays each channel, adding a small green square when a channel has new information. Downtown also allows users to build their own channels, which can be virtually any spot on the World Wide Web.

When a site is updated, Downtown downloads only the updated content and stores the entire web page using a process called "QuickCache." The user can then view the page quickly without downloading any material or even view the updated pages offline. Since the software "looks ahead" at the channels and user-selected pages, only the updated material need be downloaded.

In-Box Direct. A product from browser giant Netscape Communications, InBox Direct pushes information to the user's e-mail software rather than the browser or specialized software. As new content becomes available, InBox Direct forwards information in a HTML-formatted e-mail message to the user's e-mail address.

Netscape has a large selection of content providers for InBox Direct in a dozen categories. Each category generally contains four or five sources.

For news, users can opt to receive content from CNN, ClariNet, the New York Times, and USA Today. Users looking to subscribe to business information can select to receive material from Business Week Online, a newsletter from Financial Services Online, or Entrepreneurial Direct. InBox Direct even has a personal finance section offering a customizable stock report called "The Closing Bell" and TechInvestor Direct from CMP.

Rounding out the available content on InBox Direct are selections covering international events, entertainment, sports, travel, and several others.

While InBox Direct does not require any special software, it does require that subscribers use Netscape Navigator 3.0 to receive their e-mail. It also requires that the user have a POP3 e-mail account. POP3 (post office protocol) is the current standard for receiving mail from the Internet. For those using packages with a proprietary mailbox format, Netscape offers free POP mail accounts.

InterMind Communicator. Using the browser as the delivery mechanism, InterMind Communicator receives updates while the user's Internet connection is idle. Updates may come in the form of an HTML "postcard" in a channel or links to Web sites with more information. If a publisher changes their channel or deletes topics from the channel, the user is notified.

Intermind Communicator's channel selection includes the general news and entertainment publishers, including CBS News up to the Minute, GOP Newswire, PBS Preview, and GOLFonline.

The business channels' topics range from general business information of sources such EDGAR, Ragan Communications, and the Internet Business Report to the more specialized sources of Pest Management News and Missouri Small Business Developers Centers. With over 200 publishers providing material to Intermind's subscribers, users should find more than a few channels of interest.

The PointCast Network. PointCast is one of the first companies to use push technology to deliver information to subscribers. Using its own software and screensaver, PointCast delivers national and international news, stock information, industry updates, and weather forecasts.

PointCast replaces the screen saver with its own, displaying headlines, stock quotes, and weather forecasts using PointCast's "SmartScreen" delivery system. Latest headlines flash across the screen and allow the user to click on the headline to get the full story.

PointCast includes a complete selection of channels that offer information from sources including a direct news feed from Reuters, CNN, CNNfn, the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and WIRED. Each channel shows a list of headlines in a separate window, clicking on the headline brings up the story, complete with related links from the Internet.

The most intriguing use of PointCast is the tracking of companies. Users select companies by their stock symbol, and a tabbed screen is created with a page for each selected company. One window contains a list of available information--charts of stock performance, SEC filings, reports from the company, and news stories. Users can view all of these items directly in the PointCast software,
making tracking a number of companies painless.

PointCast is free. Advertising appears in various areas of the user interface and on the SmartScreen display. With millions of users, PointCast is in a position to offer many new content channels and build its push offerings into other applications such as the new version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer discussed below.

The Future

The two largest browser companies haven't sat idly by while other companies enjoy success pushing content all over the world. Both Netscape and Microsoft have announced that push components will be included in the next versions of their browsers.

Netscape will include an updated version of its Netcaster software, in beta testing at the time of this writing, in the new versions of its Communicator web suite. For Netcaster users, subscribing to channels is easy. At web sites featuring an "Add Netcaster Channel" button, users can click on the button and default channel settings specified by the channel provider are added to Netscape Netcaster. Users can also select any web site and specify information to be pushed at regular intervals.

Microsoft is entering into the push game as well. The latest version of Internet Explorer (4.0) includes support for Microsoft's channel definition format (CDF). Microsoft hopes CDF will become the standard for pushing information to the desktop. CDF will allow users to receive a variety of content. PointCast channels will be available as well as those from others providing information in the CDF format. CDF will also allow users to select any web site, with Explorer downloading updated material as it becomes available. For example, users who create a channel for The CPA Journal would receive updated files every month when material from the new issue is placed on the Journal's web site.

Become a Pusher

While most coverage of push technology is presented from the receiver's point of view, nearly all of the companies make tools for organizations wishing to provide information through the various webcasting products. Some methods of pushing information are easy to use, simply designing content in a manner conducive to delivering only updated information. More elaborate strategies, such as developing the information in the formats required by push products such as PointCast may be required. Other products, such as Castanet, allow distribution to a more select, limited audience, such as employees or customers. Large organizations can benefit by pushing company information and software upgrades to multiple locations.

Don't Get Pushed Around

Users exploring the various push products should take the time to determine which system will best fit their needs. System requirements, cost, and software features are major concerns, but the main factor in choosing an information provider should be content. Check each company's web site for a list of channels currently available and if there are any plans for additional channels. Since most services are free, users have the opportunity to test a number of packages and find those that provide the greatest benefit. An investment in time to explore the options should lead to time savings daily as the information sought is delivered to the desktop.

Michael J. Rosencrantz is assistant editor of The CPA Journal. He is
also the editor of the
Journal's home page on the Internet (http://archives.cpajournal.com).

In Brief

Right at Your Desktop

Daily stock quotes for your portfolio; box scores of the home teams; late breaking news and changes to The CPA Journal's home page can be at your desktop on demand. It can all happen because of push technology. It started with PointCast and Marimba. Soon Netscape and Microsoft will make it part of their web browsers. Assistant editor Michael Rosencrantz provides background on what the technology can do and reviews some of the software available. Much of the software is available for free to the consuming public. But, of course be on guard for the free stuff.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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