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-- by Amy Helen Johnson
Web content is the latest trend in home delivery. Microsoft and Netscape have added desktop-delivery features to the latest ver-sions of their browsers, which can automatically download specified files and Web pages to your computer. Having a Web site stored on your hard disk, ready for your perusal when you walk in every morning, sounds like a good idea. It saves you time and makes for a fast reading of Web pages.
Although the idea is certainly attractive, in reality, automated information delivery over the Internet or an intranet needs further development. For instance, no Internet-based standard for automated delivery exists, so Netscape and Microsoft have again chosen different implementations. The two software silverbacks are engaged in a chest-thumping display of dominance in an effort to convince the market that its system is better.
We evaluated beta versions of both desktop-delivery systems, which allow you to access channels prepared by content providers and to set up automated subscriptions to favorite sites. We focused on setting up and receiving information. Microsoft gets the nod for creating processes and dialogs that initiate and manage subscriptions and channels, integrating them well with Internet Explorer 4.0, on our WinList. (Also see Cover Story, this issue.)
Netscape's Netcaster 4.01 is a separate Communicator component dedicated to desktop delivery, while Microsoft integrates its Webcasting features into the browser itself. IE4's Webcasting features suffer from the blizzard of options and entry points common to many Microsoft programs. You have a wealth of control over your subscriptions and channels, but it takes a while to distinguish the differences among the options and to learn how to use them.
Unlike Netcaster, Microsoft maintains a distinction between a user-defined subscription and a server-based channel. With a subscription, nothing needs to happen on the server side; you control what your browser downloads. With a channel, the site developer sets up a Channel Definition Format (CDF) file that specifies which particular pieces of information make up a channel and what the update schedule is; all you have to do is say you want it. You can modify an update schedule, but you can't change a channel's structure, so you're stuck with the provider's selection of information.
Microsoft recently developed a Channel Guide that lists all the available CDF channels and lets you subscribe to them immediately. Netscape provides something similar, called the Channel Finder. However, Netscape forces the Channel Finder upon you every time you start Netcaster, whereas Microsoft lets you choose when to view the Channel Guide.
IE4 also has a Channels toolbar button. It's similar to Netcaster's My Channels in that it lists all the custom channels you've chosen. This list won't include your subscriptions, however, unless you deliberately organize your subscription shortcuts within this folder. Instead, IE4 manages subscriptions using several features: a management window that lists the status and schedule for subscriptions, properties dialogs that you access through the drop-down Favorites menu or Favorites toolbar button, and the Organize Favorites dialog box. All entry points lead to the same place, but these multiple paths can be confusing until you find one you prefer and stick to it.
You initiate a subscription using the Favorites menu, where a dialog box will ask if you want to create a traditional Favorites shortcut or subscribe to the site. Microsoft organizes IE4's Webcasting options into increasing levels of delivery activity, so you have choices that range from creating a new Favorites shortcut to monitoring a page for changes and downloading a set of pages from a site to your hard drive.
Microsoft's IE4 offers better subscription-management options than Netcaster. Like Netcaster, IE4 allows you to set up a custom delivery schedule, specify how much data to download and name your subscription. But IE4 also lets you choose not to download bulky files like sound and video. You can set priorities among your subscriptions and create custom schedules with autodial capabil-ities. The predefined channels have a similar set of options, although you need to be on an Internet-connected LAN for unattended updates.
Overall, Microsoft's implementation works smoothly once you master its assortment of options.
Netscape Netcaster 4.01
We liked Netcaster's universal interface for both channels and subscriptions, but found that it got bogged down by its limited usability and feature set.
Netscape employs an appealingly simple definition of a channel: It's anything delivered to your desktop, whether that's a general Web site you've requested or specially created content designed by a content provider. So, unlike Internet Explorer 4.0, Netscape makes no distinction between channels and subscriptions, which means you work with only one interface for finding, displaying and managing your channels. Furthermore, this interface, the aptly named Channel Finder, shows lists of available channels, so everything is truly in one place.
Despite the obvious efficiencies of such a device, the omnipresent Channel Finder soon grows tiring. To add insult to injury, the Channel Finder prominently presents ads for what Netscape dubs premier channels; Netscape has struck a deal with these organizations and rudely forces their channel markers in front of you every time you open Netcaster. The good news is that a tweak to your Preferences file will point you to an alternative channel finder, if anyone ever builds one. The bad news is that there's no easy way to do so unless you're brave enough to load the file into Notepad and risk the consequences of introducing an editing error. Netscape says it is looking into a way to let users pick their preferred channel finder, but at the moment, only administrators with Mission Control-Communicator's administration kit-have control over the Channel Finder.
We were able to slide the Channel Finder out of the way, but we couldn't get rid of it entirely; the Navigator browser and Netcaster aren't well integrated, and there's no way to subscribe to a site through the browser's Bookmarks. The subscription process through the Channel Finder is fairly straightforward. If it's a premier channel, then clicking on its marker within the Channel Finder will bring up a dialog box that asks you for a name, a URL and an update schedule. The URL is already filled in, but, in one of those strange usability quirks, you're given the option of changing it. This behavior would make more sense when you're subscribing to the site at which your browser currently points. In that case, however, you get the same dialog, but you have to fill in the URL by hand; apparently Netcaster can't pick up the current URL from Navigator's address bar.
Although Netcaster is an easy-to-learn, straightforward channel component, its obvious separation from the Navigator browser makes subscribing to a Web site awkward and time consuming. The module is better suited to third-party channels, which, annoyingly, it promotes to extremes.
Subscribe to which?
Both companies sit on World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) committees that will eventually negotiate a channel-architecture standard, which both Netscape and Microsoft will support. Until that standard emerges, you'll have to pick a preferred delivery system. In some ways, it's an easy choice. If you love one particular browser, then you will use its delivery method. If you need a particular content stream, then you'll use the delivery method it supports. But if you live without such absolutes, then the answer is less clear. Netscape Netcaster may be the closest thing to a universal client, thanks to Microsoft's decision to expand CDF so that Netcaster will read CDF channels. However, that same decision is a marketing coup for Microsoft in that it increases the chances that content providers, who want to reach the most clients with the least work, will create CDF channels-in which case, you might as well use IE4's Webcasting.
While the W3C is negotiating a peace between these two, we think you should use IE4's Webcasting. Netcaster suffers under the burden of its hyperactive marketing of premier channels, lack of smooth integration with the Navigator browser and an inconsistent presentation that hampers usability. Although Microsoft's Webcasting gets bogged down in options and distinctions among different types of delivery mechanisms, we liked its better-integrated subscription process and found that a little patient exploration quickly taught us how to use its features.
Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 98.
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