`Push' Buttons Worth Pressing

The myriad of choices can be daunting. Here's how to choose Webcasting that's right for you

You've heard about the wonders of Webcasting. So how do you get in on the action?

Assuming that you have Internet access, it's simple enough. You will need special software on your PC--but not a trip to the computer store. All of the programs can easily be downloaded free from the providers' Web sites (table).

PointCast Inc. and the others use a technique that industry pros call push delivery, which can be anything from good old E-mail to screen savers that provide access to video clips. A computer somewhere pushes the files out to you, but the end result depends on how you are connected to the Internet. All of these systems work best if you have a "persistent" connection, the kind you get through your office computer network.

For people using the programs at home, the services can only push information to you if you have dialed in. Although all of the programs can be set to dial up periodically for fresh information or updated by the click of a mouse, the effect is generally less satisfying than information that appears magically on your screen with a constant connection. (AirMedia Live gets around this by using a paging network to deliver data through an antenna connected to your computer--but it will cost you.)

For most people, installing the software is a breeze. Just click on the file after you've downloaded it, perhaps answer a couple of questions about your Internet connection, and you're ready to fill out your preferences and get online. One hitch: corporate firewalls. A firewall is a special computer system designed to protect corporate networks from bad guys on the Internet. Some push delivery services have problems with some firewalls, and some network administrators are only too happy to block push content that they fear will jam their systems. You will have to check your corporate policy.

Push content comes in several different flavors. The original approach, pioneered by PointCast, is a screensaver that displays news, sports, weather forecasts, stock quotes, and of course, ads whenever your computer is idle for more than a few minutes. PointCast now has been joined by screen saver pioneer Berkeley Systems Inc. with its After Dark Online. Both have you choose from a menu of information that they provide. Of the half-dozen programs I have tried, PointCast, which I've used for about a year, is my favorite.

News tickers, such as My Yahoo! and one from IBM, allow you to see data in a corner of the screen while you work on other things. Like screen savers, you can customize the information that you get: You won't be bothered by National Basketball Assn. scores if you hate the game, and you'll only see quotes for the stocks you want to watch. I personally don't much care for the news tickers because I find them distracting.

In one sense, E-mail is the original electronic push delivery. Many E-mailboxes are already cluttered, and Net mail has mostly been dull-looking text. While some new services won't clear out the clutter, they will change the look of what's in your mailbox. Netscape In-Box Direct will send full Web pages, complete with graphics, to your Netscape Navigator 3.0 inbox. The New York Times has used In-Box Direct to deliver its online edition to subscribers for a while. Now, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others are also using the service.

BackWeb, Intermind, and Marimba are three startups taking push delivery in new directions. Their services are built around "channels." For example, the General Motors Corp. channel on BackWeb keeps you posted on new models and other auto news, while CBS Inc. uses Intermind to deliver its Up to the Minute news service. With each, you subscribe to specific channels and you get only those channels' information.

There are differences. Intermind, the most established of the three, uses software agents called Hyperconnectors to check Intermind sites you have subscribed to. When the agents find new information, they load it into your Web browser. Intermind is richer in content than the other two recent startups, offering such things as PBS and Cybergolf as well as CBS. But Intermind is the least convenient to set up, and it doesn't bring new information or alerts right to your screen.

BackWeb is extremely promising. Its servers, run by the providers of channels you subscribe to, pump information directly to your PC. This might be a news report that pops up in a window or a software upgrade that silently installs itself on your hard disk. McAfee Associates Inc. uses BackWeb to automatically send updates of its antivirus products. This one, I suspect, could become the favorite of corporate network administrators.

Marimba's software is somewhat similar to BackWeb. But it's designed around the technology of the new Java language. The software that runs on your computer, called Castanet Tuner, can handle anything a Java applet can, including pop-up windows, news tickers, and background audio. The Java applets can also be programs--a game, for example. While all three of these new programs should be considered works in progress, Castanet is the least mature of the three.

A PRECAUTION. There's no technical reason not to run all of these push services on your computer at once. But you would soon be overwhelmed by the avalanche of information. Instead, visit the Web sites, see what channels providers have to offer, and choose one or two that best suit your needs and desires. If you like Webcasting, you should probably check out the various sites periodically to see who has added new features or channels. Expect the offerings to change rapidly.

I suggest one precaution first, however. Many of these push services can run programs on your computer without your knowledge or explicit consent. I wouldn't fire up any of them without first installing a good, up-to-date virus scanner. With that safeguard in place, these new services are well worth a try.

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