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Windows on the Web
-- by Cynthia Morgan
Having your own personalized newswire is the dream of the information age. But like most dreams, it sometimes doesn't stand up to the cold light of day.
Users of PointCast, the leader in online news services, are already finding this out. At first, everything was great. They downloaded PointCast from the Web and spelled out exactly the type of information they were interested in receiving, and PointCast delivered it piping hot right to their desktops. Then came the problems: crowded network pipelines, information retrieval overload and time wasted wading through useless or duplicate "hits."
The good news is if you use PointCast and services like it sensibly, you can maximize the quality of information without trashing your PC resources.
Keep it simple
With any personalized news service, more is not necessarily better. Unless you absolutely need full text, opt for delivery of minimal information-such as headlines only-and download the full text only when you need it. Don't choose every topic under the sun; with the plethora of newsfeeds available on the Internet these days, you probably won't have time to read all that news, anyway.
Almost any of these services will offer better-quality information and faster performance if you do some work up front. Be precise with your requests; don't ask for all news about "Windows" when all you really need is "Windows 95 PCs." BackWeb, a free service similar to PointCast, lets you use extremely specific natural language to filter out unwanted news. Another free service, Freeloader, offers many more customization features and might be a good choice for the newsreader who's willing to tinker.
Often you'll find numerous resources are delivering the same news stories. See if you can eliminate one or two. It could prevent time- and bandwidth-wasting duplication without seriously affecting news quality. You should also monitor which resources aren't returning relevant information regularly and then delete them in favor of a more effective newsfeed.
PointCast and its siblings enable you to schedule on-the-hour background news retrievals. Don't do it, especially if your Internet feed resides on a network. Instead, you should launch background news updates manually.
Have your network administrator install network traffic-management utilities to keep others from swamping your company's Internet pipe. Bandwidth hogging on a network slows access for everyone. Sequel's Net Access Manager, for example, can regulate network traffic by preventing users from accessing services like PointCast hourly. Instead, it permits groups of users to alternate PointCast news-grabbing at low-traffic moments.
Let the server do it
PointCast and other companies now offer software that puts news on the server, where users can retrieve it by logging into the company intranet or picking up e-mail attachments of relevant stories. Such software costs anywhere from a few dollars to several thousand dollars per user, depending on its complexity and the number of newsfeeds coming in.
Incisa, from Wayfarer Communications, goes this one better by not only delivering information to the intranet server from multiple news resources, such as Reuters, PR Newswire and PC Quote, but also offering two-way communications. It lets administrators build online surveys of users that they can display as news alongside more conventional newsfeeds. The software, about $5,000 for 100 seats, requires an NT or Sun Solaris server but works with Windows 3.x, Win95 and Windows NT clients.
Sometimes PointCast's resources simply aren't topic-specific enough for your needs. Other services can offer updates on everything from biotechnology to the workings of the U.S. government to the latest in high-fashion trends and music. InfoComm Canada, for instance, sets up newsfeeds and information on Canada, with paging service, if requested.
Build your own news page
Sometimes it's better to go to the news rather than have it come to you. Online newspapers let you make regular visits to news in the form of a Web page you can bookmark, or even establish as your start page. Many commercial search engines, such as Yahoo and InfoSeek, offer personalized online newspapers. These draw information from news sources, filter it according to your criteria and display it as a Web page with links you can click on for additional information.
Crayon (CReAte Your Own Newspaper), one of the oldest personal newspapers online, is a typical example. You select the types of news you want from a list of topics, then generate a newspaper Web page. Source code for your page is stored locally, so clicking on a particular newsfeed launches your browser, downloads the information and returns an up-to-the-minute news page. Another free newspaper, fishWrap, lets you customize your news by topic but also offers a hometown section that's tuned to news from your geographic location. Though it's limited in its news selections, it's far more extensive than Crayon and lets you drill down into specific references where Crayon doesn't.
Another easily customizable news page is Netscape's PowerStart. Its news resources are limited, so you'll want to seek out a few sites to add to your page and build in the links.
Put it on the back (Web) burner
BackWeb takes a slightly different approach to news broadcasting, by keeping an eye on its bandwidth use and making sure it doesn't overflow the user's pipeline. Its appropriately named Polite Agent monitors a customer's Net usage. Whenever usage drops-say, when you're not actively using your browser-BackWeb slips chunks of data, known as InfoPaks, down the connection, in the background. BackWeb caches the InfoPaks until their scheduled arrival time, then assembles them and notifies the user that a news item has arrived. The net effect is that relatively large multimedia files can be shipped with little impact on local or server operations.
Be careful not to oversubscribe to BackWeb channels, however, or the number of InfoPaks delivered to your computer will quickly exceed the available low-bandwidth transmission periods. And BackWeb recommends reserving at least 4MB for its software and plug-ins-they're delivered automatically, as needed-and about 6MB per selected channel. The software will automatically stop delivery to that channel until you remove items from that space. Unfortunately, BackWeb offers so many services, each reserving 6MB spaces, that you can easily fill 100MB just for BackWeb news.
The company supports transmission of everything from RealAudio to ShockWave files, and will be adding support for Java and Active-X controls soon. BackWeb channels aren't limited to straight newsfeeds, either. Besides weather, you'll find channels for news, active discussions and even software delivery for topics ranging from dating services and astrology to huge shareware houses such as Jumbo (http://www.jumbo.com) to ski reports and the Jerusalem Post. Other channels in the works include reports from Amnesty International and the Wall Street Journal.
Don't clog your hard drive
If you don't want to clog up your computer, consider Global Village Communication's NewsCatcher, $149 (see WinLab Reviews, January). This small, wireless device grabs headlines and alerts you to top headlines and custom-filtered news items. The only time your computer gets into the act is when you find something of interest, click on it and jump to the Web site.
You could even try a news paging service, which notes your news preferences, pages you when requested news breaks (or on an hourly, daily or weekly basis) and sends either URL links or faxes.
Try an e-mail service
Some newsfeeds, such as Farcast or NewsHound, deliver news about specific topics right to your e-mail inbox. These don't put the strain on your network that PointCast does, and their entry into the mail system lets you distribute them to e-mail folders or easily mail particular stories to compatriots. Farcast uses Droids-agents tuned to grab topic-specific news-to take your e-mail requests, gather the information you want and mail it back to you. For $9.95 a month, you get up to 15 personal Droids for subjects ranging from stock prices to international news; a 30-day trial is free.
NewsHound, a low-cost electronic clipping service from the San Jose Mercury News, lets you set up five news profiles for $7.95 per month. Each profile is a custom query for keywords (you can qualify keywords as "critical," "desirable" and "avoid"). One big advantage of NewsHound, which sends daily updates to your mailbox, is that it delivers the full text of articles for no extra charge.
Mercury Mail Closing Bell offers stock, mutual fund and index quotes. Like many of these services, it's free. Mercury also offers regularly delivered weather reports, in conjunction with the Weather Channel. The service, called WeatherVane, can home in on the weather around your local airport and even link you to the latest satellite pictures.
You just enter a 3-digit airport code (JFK, for instance), a 5-digit zip code or a city. The latest weather conditions, the forecast and links to the latest satellite pictures will then be e-mailed to you.
With all these developments, the desktop newswire technology is still in its infancy. A little refinement, and sensible use by its adherents, could go a long way toward turning your PC into a true information appliance.
News Clues--A brief description of URLs mentioned in this story.
(http://www.backweb.com/) lets you use natural language to filter out unwanted news.
(http://crayon.net/) lets you select the types of news you want from a list of topics, then generates a newspaper Web page.
(http://www.farcast.com/) delivers news about specific topics right to your e-mail inbox.
(http://www.sfgate.com/) offers a "hometown" section tuned to news from your geographic location.
(http://www.freeloader.com/) offers many customization features.
(http://www.wayfarer.com/) offers two-way communications.
(http://www.infocomm.ca/) sets up newsfeeds and information about Canada.
(http://www.infoseek.com) is a personalized online "newspaper."
Mercury Mail Closing Bell
(http://www.merc.com) offers stock, mutual fund and index quotes.
Mercury Mail WeatherVane
(http://www.merc.com/wv/cgi/wv_merc.cgi?) brings you the weather around your local airport and can link you to the latest satellite pictures.
(http://editmy.yahoo.com/config/login) offers a personalized online "newspaper" filtered according to your criteria.
Net Access Manager
(http://www.sequeltech.com/) from Sequel Technology, controls employees' Internet Access.
(http://www.hound.com/) lets you set up five news profiles for $7.95 per month.
(http://home.netscape.com/custom/) from Netscape lets you gather all of your most-used links onto one page.