Don't Surf To Us, We'll Surf To You

The next wave: Sit back and let "webcasters" find and deliver the "programming" you want

Remember the good old days when surfing the Net was an adventure and you happily whiled away the hours searching out Web sites and waiting for pages to download? Well, if you're like most Web surfers, that initial infatuation gave way to a more weary reality: Surfing the Net can be a lot of work. And if you're one of the zillions of people trying to do business in cyberspace, you know that surfing is not a reliable way for customers to find their way to your cyber door.

Now, there's a new approach to the Net that just might be the thing to let it fulfill its potential as a mass medium--and make it a far more predictable environment in which to run a business. Borrowing from the models of radio and television, dozens of companies are experimenting with what they're calling "webcasting"--a way to push information out across the Net rather than waiting for consumers to find it. It involves dispatching collections of ordinary Web pages, news updates, and, increasingly, live sound and video geared to a particular audience--even a particular person.

"Viewers" whose job involves corporate finance, for example, might log on to their computers and find a selection of new stories on the economy, along with a ticker on selected stocks and video of a recent Alan Greenspan speech. "The metaphor for the Web is going to shift from pages to channels," says Marc L. Andreessen, vice-president for technology at Netscape Communications Corp.

JUST LIKE TV. Already, webcasting is starting to click. Take PointCast Inc. Since May, some 1 million customers have downloaded the Cupertino (Calif.) startup's software, a screen saver that automatically dials up PointCast's server to receive and display news, sports, and scrolling weather reports and stock prices as specified by each PC owner. Just as on a TV channel, the service is paid for by the advertisers whose messages also flash on the screens. Even though it boasts no audio or video yet, PointCast is billing itself as the first commercial channel on the Net. Says PointCast CEO Christopher Hassett: "The Internet as a medium isn't an experiment anymore."

The buzz generated by PointCast quickly made webcasting the next battleground in cyberspace. Netscape and Microsoft Corp. are both adapting their browser programs to receive webcast content and to organize it into channels. Microsoft is striking deals with Web sites such as The Wall Street Journal, which will offer its online edition for free to users of Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 3.0 browser. With Internet Explorer 4.0, scheduled for release by yearend, the browser will be able to automatically download the content.

Netscape says its Navigator 3.0, announced on Aug. 19, already has webcasting capabilities. Using it, PC owners can get multimedia-enhanced Web pages from the The New York Times and at least two dozen other publishers in their electronic mailboxes.

Will webcasting turn a nation of couch potatoes into a nation of Net-channel surfers? Not anytime soon. There's a long list of technology kinks that need to be worked out, not the least of which is the Internet's limited ability to handle high-quality audio and video.

But the new approach to the Web may finally produce the kind of interactive TV that media giants have been spending hundreds of millions to develop. The key is the two-way nature of webcasting, which lets Internet users specify exactly what type of information they want to receive. It's as if you could not only choose which TV channels you want to watch but also specify what shows you want your channels to broadcast. You might sign up for a news service but request only stories on computers, the Yankees, and local weather, for example. Viewers can also respond to programs and ads--joining discussions with other viewers or clicking on an ad for more details, perhaps even placing an order.

These traits make webcasting appealing to advertisers and online retailers. On a webcasting site, advertisers can track how many people visit, discern what they're viewing, and often glean some detail about them. That way, marketers can begin to aim their appeals directly at the people who are most likely to buy--the Holy Grail for advertisers. "There's no other medium where you know your customer as well as you do on the Web," says Montgomery Securities analyst Betty J. Lyter.

The potential is not lost on media companies. CNN is making its content available through PointCast. NBC plans to webcast financial news to corporate desktops and is working with chipmaker Intel Corp. on a new scheme called Intercast. The system allows a PC equipped with a special circuit card to receive TV programming and also, employing a bit of unused TV bandwidth, to send Web pages associated with particular programs--say, historical statistics of the sports teams that are playing.

QUALITY LAG. For all the big names jumping in, the webcasting field is still wide open. Startup CNET, a cable-TV channel and Web site covering computer topics, is looking into webcasting. And there are a number of Web radio startups. NetRadio lets some 75,000 Web surfers in 90 countries choose what music and news they want to hear online--and surf to other Web sites while listening. AudioNet, a network of online radio stations, promises advertisers a unique audience. "We have a way to reach the in-office market that even TV and radio can't reach," says AudioNet President Mark Cuban.

Still, to build audiences to the numbers they'll need to draw advertisers, webcasters know they have to quickly come up with high-quality sound and video. The most promising solution so far is "streaming," a method of compressing multimedia information so it can be sent over the Net in a continual stream. With streaming, PC owners can start seeing and hearing clips within a few seconds instead of waiting for an entire file to download.

Progressive Networks' RealAudio software, available for free on the Net, makes it possible to stream dozens of radio stations into a PC. The latest version of the program lets listeners preset "stations" and scan them, much the way a car radio does. Web sites are getting into the radio game, too. Sportsline USA plans to offer 70 hours a week of live webcasts starting Sept. 1.

Tackling video is proving more difficult. But a few startups, such as Xing Technology Corp. and VDOnet Corp., are offering software that compresses video so that it, too, can be streamed across the Net. It's nowhere near TV quality, but the Web provides an extra dimension that TV can't: During a VDOnet baseball webcast from Japan on Aug. 30, viewers could select from among several camera angles.

Another way to squeeze video across the Net may be through multicasting, a technology that promises to let an unlimited number of people view the same data stream. To handle large volumes of simultaneous broadcasts, though, every routing computer on the Internet ultimately will have to be updated or replaced. Notes Michael Wheeler, president of NBC Desktop Video: "Full-motion video on the Internet is years away."

If television-like programming on a PC becomes practical, will it be desirable? "No one's going to watch a half-hour show with a mouse in their hand," figures Halsey Minor, CEO of CNET. Maybe not, but with CNET and others hard at work on programming to keep twitchy Web surfers tuned to their channels, the Web won't look the same for long. Don't touch that dial--er, mouse.