Microsoft and Netscape push Webcasting

By Richard Morochove

First published March 20, 1997

Now that Internet software leaders Netscape and Microsoft have both announced they will incorporate Internet "push" technology in upcoming products, it’s safe to predict it will become the next big thing on the Net. Unfortunately, just as predictably, Netscape and Microsoft are opting for different standards.

Push is the name given to technology that allows you to specify the type of information you want from the Internet, then delivers it to your computer when you request an update. The more familiar pull technology requires you to visit specific Web sites and ask to view pages from each.

When I last wrote about push technology, about five months ago, there was a host of little companies vying for attention, including PointCast and Marimba. The little companies have since grown a lot bigger.

PointCast popularized Internet push technology with its software that allows you to receive customized Internet information, including news and sports, and display it as a TV-like screensaver on your computer. PointCast Canada claims 150,000 viewers for its advertiser-supported service.

At last week’s Internet World in Los Angeles, Microsoft announced Channel Definition Format (CDF), push technology based on an extension of the hypertext markup language (HTML) now used to create Web pages. Microsoft’s CDF will allow Web site owners to deliver selected information to a potentially enormous audience. A number of online companies are supporting CDF, including America Online and PointCast and the proposed standard has been sent to the World Wide Web consortium for comments.

The upcoming version of MS Internet Explorer 4.0, due out later this year, will allow you to use the CDF push technology, in addition to the pull technology now used in the Web browser. A common standard for push technology would fuel the growth of Webcasting, letting you create your own custom information gathering retriever, as long as the content is prepared using the standard.

You needn’t wait long to preview this technology. In April, PointCast will release a beta test version of its software which will include PointCast Connections, based on Microsoft’s CDF. The new Connections channel will run alongside other PointCast channels. PointCast users will be able to select from a directory of participating Web sites supporting CDF.

Web sites pay no fee to participate in this program. PointCast will earn revenue from advertisements it distributes along with the content.

Screen shot of PointCast Connections Directory
PointCast Connections Directory adds many new channels.

As expected, Netscape Communications isn’t too keen on Microsoft’s plan for CDF. Netscape believes it isn’t necessary to develop a new standard and argues that a combination of existing Internet standards such as HTML, Java and JavaScript can be used to push information to users.

Netscape’s senior vice president of technology, Marc Andreessen, predicts Microsoft’s CDF will die on the vine. This summer, Netscape plans to release Constellation, its own push technology viewer. The company also plans to release Palomar, a tool that creates hybrid HTML, Java and JavaScript applications, about the same time.

While Microsoft and Netscape jockey for control of Internet push technology, there’s a bigger question left unanswered. Is it really worthwhile for the information consumer?

Push technology isn’t for everyone, particularly if you don’t have a full-time high speed connection to the Internet. I dialed up through my ISP at 14.4 Kbps and found it took up to an hour to download my information update from PointCast Canada. There were long pauses where nothing was transmitted over the modem. I could practically hear the clicking of the meter as I paid for Internet time that went to waste.

Several times, the PointCast software disconnected itself from the ISP and suggested I call back later, when it wasn’t so busy. It took up to four phone calls before I could complete my information update.

The PointCast software is a resource hog. I used it on a 133 MHz. Pentium-based Windows 95 computer with 32 megabytes of RAM, no slouch of a machine. Yet the operations of other applications slowed to a snail’s pace during my information update.

Then there’s the issue of the quality of the information. Some is independently reported from sources such as the Globe & Mail, which owns PointCast Canada, and the New York Times. However, there are also many company prepared "news" releases touting their own wares, that I consider the electronic equivalent of junk mail. Sometimes I received information entirely in French.

Internet push technology is clearly immature. Yet, even with all its flaws, I see a gem in the concept of delivering the information you want, directly to your computer desktop. However, this diamond in the rough needs polishing before it will sparkle. CW