BRIT HUME and T.R. REID
So vast is the explosion of material available on the Internet’s World Wide Web that the future of Internet software may belong to the programs which can best retrieve, sort and present information in the way individual users want.
That explains the excitement generated in recent months by a single Internet application: PointCast, which like so much else on the Internet, is free. Go to the company’s web site (www.pointcast.com) to download it.
The PointCast Network, the program’s full name, is not a browser though it does some of the things a browser does. It is, instead, a news and information-gathering program which culls selected web sites for information tailored to your specifications, stores it on your hard disk and displays it on your monitor.
The information is in three categories: news, sports and weather. It is provided by CNN, Reuters, the Weather Channel, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other publications, including Wired magazine. Except for CNN, which is mandatory, you may choose which of these providers you wish to use. Within the three categories are such subheadings as U.S. news, world news, business, politics, travel and health.
You can select which country’s weather, and which city’s, you want. You can select which sports you want. It is wise to be choosy, both in limiting the number of providers and the number of topics, since the data must be downloaded from each site. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on your choices.
PointCast works best with a direct Internet connection, which allows it to update its information as often as you like without having to dial an Internet provider each time.
Dial-up connections work fine, however, and any standard Internet service provider, including America Online and CompuServe, will do. You can set PointCast to dial automatically at specified intervals and update its information.
You see information in PointCast on a screen resembling a TV format with three windows. At the top left, in a small window, is an index of stories from which you can choose. After clicking on the listing, the story appears in full text in the large window across the lower half of your screen. At the top right is an advertising window. Click on it and your web browser will automatically load and take you to the advertiser’s web site. Click on the large window’s top border and the other two disappear, allowing you to read stories full-screen.
When you check the weather, the screen is inverted, with the main information window at the top. A three-day forecast for the places you have chosen scrolls through. At the bottom right is a national satellite picture, with the ad now at the bottom left. When you check sports, scores scroll across the bottom of the screen, below the main story window.
There is a vertical button bar down the left side of the screen where you pick your subject and information provider. There is also an “update” button, which tells the program to dial (if necessary) the web to get a fresh round of data, a print button and buttons that lead to menus with some other adjustments.
In addition to being a stand-alone application, PointCast is also a screen saver which presents headlines from your chosen newspapers on a royal blue background with sports scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
Periodically, the screen changes to present a weather summary. There is the omnipresent ad window (you may not like it, but remember: the ad window is the reason this program is free). It may not be as pretty as some screen savers, but it’s a lot more useful. This may be the program’s most clever feature.
PointCast is designed to work with Netscape’s Navigator, and while it tried to use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to access several advertiser web pages, it didn’t work. This problem, however, did not affect the program’s ability to update its information files from the web.
Presumably, this problem will be corrected soon, since PointCast recently made a deal with Microsoft to provide its content-delivery technology for use in Microsoft’s upcoming new version of Internet Explorer.
To use PointCast, you’ll need at least a 486 PC, with 8 megabytes of free hard-disk space and a modem. A “beta” test version of the software for the Macintosh is now also available.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is a Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com, or Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.