push channels and Internet Explorer 4 (1997)

Were the Internet a TV channel praise would be heaped on it for gaining its huge audience – forty million ‘viewers’ at the last count and in just a few years. Shareholder applause would be due too for attracting advertising from all kinds of business, while its infinite schedule allows all kinds of service – news, sport, entertainment to offer ‘shows’ online. It is no surprise that nearly 40% of business leaders rate it as the top technology development of the decade – writes Roger Frost in 1997.

But compare it further with other publishing media – press, radio or TV and something seems amiss. To get at the content, people have to actively hunt for what they want. Were the Internet a TV channel using it would entail calling the station everyday to ask for your programmes. Were it a newspaper you would constantly need to remind the newsagent to drop by with today’s paper. As delivery ‘models’ go, the Internet grates against daily habits. If breaking the habit of forty million viewers is almost a possibility, then there are billions out there who actually like theirs.

With its eye on the rest of the populace, the Internet has learnt better ways of delivering over the last few months. By using what they call ‘push’, ‘webcast’ or more recently ‘active channel’ technology, content is sent out automatically instead of leaving people to hunt for it. This approach is being built into new browser software such as Netscape’s Communicator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4. At the same time, some 250 content providers are tooling up to optimise their services for automatic delivery to computer desktops. Among them are Disney, Warner Bros, CBS Sportsline, Discovery Channel, The New York Times, MTV – it is hard not to find a name associated with entertainment, information, and business news. Putting that differently, if the services appearing are getting up to scratch, what remains is the necessary bandwidth and a way to make a computer an easy to use window on all this content.

Microsoft recently previewed its IE4, looking like not just a new browser but more like a significant upgrade to Windows 95. In short, it turns the Internet-ready computers that manufacturers are currently selling into seriously Internet-aware machines. With them, users can subscribe to the Internet sites or channels they need and choose between being told when there is new content, or having their computer refreshed with as it appears. With a computer linked live to the Internet, people will be able to hop between channels in tune with the time-honoured button pushing habit.

For some time to come bandwidth will remain an issue, but the positive side to this is that content publishers now have to be more ingenious in using the bandwidth that is available. In a slightly perverse way, the limits to bandwidth are to be welcomed set beside the way today’s software consumes more hard disk space than it really ought. When software publishers saw no limit to hard disc space, they wrote their software big without mercy and virtually killing off old machines. So on the Internet, where the test of a good page is one where you can manage to hold your breath for as long as it takes to load, the designers need at last to get clever. Unlike traditional broadcasting, eye-catching graphic effects are now sent through the Internet as compact programs instead of slow travelling video. The programs, written in languages such as Java, Active X, and Dynamic HTML take just seconds to load but can kick the computer into minutes worth of dazzling animation.

Web surfers used to seeing material in a browser window may be in for a surprise from the way that it can now be viewed with the soon coming software. For example, they might subscribe to one of those services and see it as a backdrop to their work on screen. They can have ‘tickers’ that scroll news headlines across the screen, miniature pages in a spare screen corner or most peculiarly, have information sent to their screen-saver. Thankfully for those without permanent Internet linkups, can have pages sent via e-mail to pick up when they connect. In short, tomorrow’s computer screen will be wearing an assortment of distracting accessories in the shape of windows, buttons, and busy graphics. Exciting it may be, how people can get on with their work with something like Piccadilly Circus in the background needs thinking about.

Content aside, there is a welcome bonus. Among the firms keen to ‘push’ material to Internet wired desktops are the computer manufacturers and software publishers. They too are tooling up to deliver customers with machines that should a technical problem arise, they can take reins of and support remotely. It may even be that a button appears on the screen to tell that a software fix or upgrade is ready to install – without having to go asking for it. As anyone who has surfed the billboards all over the Internet has noticed, tomorrows computer screens are yet another surface to push and splash with advertising. In the coming months, as this starts to materialise, there is just time to decide who to sell your valuable screen space to. The idea of selling a desktop to the devil in return for infinite bandwidth is just a passing idea.

Microsoft’s ‘active channel’ programme guide is at channels.microsoft.com/guide/chguide.asp

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