`Vc Rs' For The Web

Offline Web readers fetch data when you can't, so you can surf at your leisure

Someday, we'll all browse the World Wide Web over cable modems or high-speed digital lines, so we won't have to wait forever for pages to download. Someday, Internet service providers will add enough capacity to eliminate busy signals. Someday, you'll be able to connect to the Net easily from a hotel or even a plane.

That day is still a ways off, though. In the meantime, a new breed of software gives you what I like to think of as VCRs for the Web. The programs are offline Web readers, which you instruct to go onto the Web automatically to download pages. Then, you surf through copies stored on a disk drive.

The most obvious use of these programs is to make it quicker and easier to browse through sites you visit regularly. Say you like to start your day with the scores and news from ESPNET SportsZone (http://espnet.sportszone.com). If your offline retriever fetches the data in the wee hours, you can scan the news as quickly as your hard drive can deliver pages.

That's only the beginning. Perhaps you need to bone up on a big customer by reading its Web pages in advance of a sales call. You can't connect to the Internet from a plane, but with an offline reader, you can download the pages and peruse them while you fly to your appointment. Suppose you want to share with a client information available only on your company's internal Web server. Let your computer do the work, and use the pages in your presentation.

All of the offline readers work more or less the same way. Pick the sites and specify when--and how often--data should be checked. You might want to refresh a news site such as CNN Interactive (http://cnn.com) hourly but fetch an online magazine such as Microsoft's Slate (http://www.slate.com) weekly.

The programs come with a menu of popular sites preconfigured for downloading, but getting the maximum benefit takes some work. The trickiest decision is determining how much data you want, specified by how many levels deep you want to follow links at each site. Go too deep, and you'll stay online for hours downloading many megabytes of data, though all the programs let you set overall limits on the amount of disk space your downloads can consume. Go too shallow, and you'll find you don't have that page you really need.

WebEx was my clear favorite among the three programs I tried. It runs entirely within either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, and was the easiest to set up. Once you launch the WebEx "agent," you type in the address of a site or make a selection from your customized WebEx home page. If the page you want is not stored in your computer, the program offers to connect to the Internet to retrieve it.

OM-Express offers similar features, but I found setting up its download schedule more difficult. FreeLoader is literally free, but you must go through a home page cluttered with ads. The program, which works only with Netscape browsers, hinders navigation by displaying a file name it invented, not the actual Web address, for pages it has stored. In addition to these programs, I've looked at test versions of WebMirror Personal from Mobileware and WebClip from PaperClip Software, interesting newcomers that should ship soon.

Beyond the obvious advantages, these programs represent a great trend for consumers. Both trial and inexpensive full versions can be downloaded, making it a low-risk proposition to give these offline readers a try.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.