Article

UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997




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Mark Nearhos
Educational Technologist, UniServe Science

Before joining UniServe Science Mark worked at the ANU Library maintaining several Web sites and teaching Internet and HTML courses.

Dinopis sp. - webcasting spider  
Dinopis sp. - webcasting spider

Webcasting

Mark Nearhos
BioSciCH@mail.usyd.edu.au

Webcasting or `push technology' has started to flourish on the Web this year. It is a form of broadcasting on the World Wide Web and this is where the name is derived from. The `push technology' refers to the fact that rather than actively seeking out information and `pulling' it in, this system requires you to select a channel and the information is then pushed over the network to your computer. Several companies have products in various stages of development, but now Microsoft and Netscape are incorporating the technology into their web browsers.

The most established of the products available at the moment is Pointcast. This works as a screen saver after the keyboard has been idle for a set time. However, rather than shapes or fish swimming around your screen, it provides up to date news headlines, weather etc. If an item is of interest you simply click on it for more detail.

Pointcast has already been available for some time now and is likely to be incorporated into Microsoft's Active Desk Top. This is the push technology component of the next release of Internet Explorer, Microsoft's web browser.

Despite this, Netscape has beaten Microsoft out of the gates (no pun intended) by releasing a beta version of Netscape Netcaster. This is a new component to their Netscape Communicator client software suite (which also includes their Navigator web browser).

Netcaster allows users to subscribe to channels. A channel contains web content which is pushed to the browser (i.e. you don't look for the information, it looks for you). Netscape have teamed with an existing company called Marimba who are providing 100 channel partners for the Netcaster `channel finder'. Perhaps of more importance is the ease with which content from existing web sites can be turned into a channel.

Microsoft has proposed the `channel definition format' (CDF) specification as an industry standard. Although several other companies look like using this, Netscape claims CDF is unnecessary to use push technologies.

The business implications are obvious, with news and stock quotes being pushed (scrolled) across the screen. However there are also tremendous possibilities for use in the educational environment, including:

  • self paced CAL tutorials where different topics are on different channels. The student could then break out of what is being pushed to their browser, to pursue topics of interest in more detail; and

  • a mechanism for updating software in labs, either yourself or by the manufacturer. McAfee are using BackWeb to send automatic updates of their virus protection software. Pointcast software uses itself to keep itself up to date.
There are obvious concerns here in allowing an external party to place software on desk top machines in your organisation. The implications of this need to be weighed against the advantages of the technology.


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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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