Truly Broad 'casting 

Pointcast and bait

Pointcast and bait

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an information junkie. My days and nights are punctuated with lengthy visits to newsstands, and my cable dial is usually stuck on CNN. Most people allow themselves a cup of coffee in the morning so that they can function properly the rest of the day. I allow myself a dose of Catherine Crier.

The World Wide Web has come very close to fulfilling my dreams of total news immersion, but there’s one small problem. I call it the “packaging dilemma.” We consumers like our products to come in pretty packages. We don’t really care how the product itself looks, or even how it functions. Flashy, colorful labels will do more to get the goods in our shopping carts than true utility ever will.

The Web is one of these functional utilities without a fancy label. It is information, raw and uncorrupted. It is a worldwide medium direct in purpose and clear of censorship. It is one of the most useful tools ever to come out of the so-called “Information Revolution.” In short, it’s bo-o-o-o-r-r-ring!

What true usefulness the World Wide Web is able to offer is destroyed by the generic-brand label it wears—it simply lacks a sense of consumer style. But with millions of dollars being pumped into the Web every week, it goes without saying that corporate America is counting on this online phenomenon to find its packaging someday. And sure enough, a company based in Cupertino, Calif., has just come up with the slickest packaging to date for the Web.

Pointcast is, put simply, both an online service and a screensaver. The company collects news and weather, then sends the information and a couple of animated commercials down the line to each client computer. A user can then navigate huge amounts of information with a simple browser program, or he can simply wait for the information to be offered up screen by screen, like a television program, in a special point-and-click screensaver.

The information offered in the Pointcast service is widely varied, but it’s easy to find. If you’re looking to track a company’s progress on the stock exchange, simply enter the ticker symbol, wait for the update, and then view the totals with graphs, charts and even related news items. If you need a lottery number, the Lifestyles section will supply it—just select “Kentucky,” and you’re on your way to your first million.

All this news is offered free of charge. You’ll just have to put up with the scrolling advertisements that take up a little less than one-fourth of the screen. In general, they’re not that annoying.

Even updating to new versions of the software is frighteningly easy. Instead of downloading a new release to install, the program updates itself automatically. Yet the fascinating thing about Pointcast is not the program itself, but, rather, how the program retrieves information. It only gives a user what he or she requests, and nothing else. You can, in this way, personalize your own newscast by telling the broadcaster what you want to hear. Not only does this cut down on the amount of fluff you’re forced to wade through, but it also makes the more pertinent stories float right to the top.

This method of selective broadcasting has been talked about for years by the television industry. Up until now, you might have heard it called “I-TV,” or “interactive television.” The company responsible for Pointcast uses the Web as its transmission medium and has thus picked a new moniker: pointcasting.

Pointcast has already created a mini-firestorm on the Web. Netscape has signed an agreement with the company to market the Pointcast service with its popular Netscape browser. Already, a version of Pointcast has been released that allows users to view pointcasted programs from within Netscape.

Advertisers have latched onto Pointcast as well. Current companies hawking their wares on the service include Saturn, Wells Fargo, 20th Century Fox, Quarterdeck, and Prodigy. Whether all the pretty labels will catch the eye of the average consumer remains to be seen, though. Pointcast is, however, oddly compelling...for a fancy screensaver. Find out more at the Pointcast Web site ( http://www.pointcast.com/ ).

Bytes

Atlanta-based Internet service provider MindSpring, which has dial-up operations here in Nashville, has announced a couple of price changes. Perhaps in response to the entry of AT&T and MCI into the ISP race, they’ve added new pricing plans beginning at $6.95 per month. That plan includes five free hours and costs $2 for each additional hour. MindSpring has also added several other options, including a non-prime-time package that costs $12.95 per month for usage between certain times.

Their “Works” package offers the best deal, at $26.95 per month for unlimited access, 5 megabytes of Web page storage, and two extra e-mail boxes for family members. For more about MindSpring, visit their Web site at http://www.mindspring.com/.

Joel can be reached via e-mail at joel@moses.com.

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