The introduction by Microsoft Corp. (www.
microsoft.com) and Netscape Communications Corp. (www.netscape.
com) of browsers that can push content to PCs will force many smaller players out of the market.
But whether the browser giants' new features catch on with consumers is a big question. And whether content providers find a way to generate significant advertising from browser push services is a bigger question.
TECHNOLOGY IS CLUNKY
Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 4.0 gives users a chance to select from more than 700 Active Channel partners that can deliver Web content to the PC's hard drive for offline viewing, or in some cases to an onscreen window.
Netscape's Netcaster service, which launched earlier this year along with the Communicator browser suite, similarly has formal agreements with content providers for about 150 channels vying to push content to the PC user.
The media benefit is clear: The ability to push content and ads directly to the millions of PC users who will move to the new browsers in coming months.
But content providers and analysts say browser push services face key obstacles:
The technology is clunky.
It's still to be determined what percentage of users of the new browsers will embrace push features.
nUsers are less likely to embrace the features if there is not compelling, unique content, and many content providers can't justify investing heavily in push content without an assured customer base.
nA final impediment: Content providers say Microsoft and Netscape do not provide the broad, measurable data needed to tell advertisers how many consumers see pushed content.
"The reality is we have a lot of crude product that isn't completed yet. The hype is getting out in front of the developers," said John McCarthy, group director of new media research at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.
Yet hundreds and soon thousands of content providers are jumping in. Yusuf Mehdi, director of marketing in Microsoft's applications and Internet client group, expects IE4's channel guide to include more than 1,000 channels by yearend, including more than 30 top-tier channels. Netscape also is encouraging proliferation: Any site can add a button allowing a user to make that site a Netcaster channel.
Netscape initially tried to get select sites to pay big bucks-reportedly as much as $5 million-for a package including prominent listing in its channel finder.
Microsoft, which cut into Netscape's browser revenues two years ago by making IE free, did the same with push. IE4's top-level channels-including Disney Online, PointCast, Warner Bros. and America Online-got on free. Netscape still charges varying fees for channel finder listings.
"Does Warner [Bros.] help Microsoft? In a small way. Does Microsoft help Warner? In a big way," said Gary Wolf, an executive producer with Wired Ventures.
Amid the sea of channels, a handful will quickly emerge as leaders in the field, bets Tim Hickman, Netcaster senior product manager. Major Web content brands will be the likely push winners, but there also is an opportunity for lesser known brands to rise by being early to drive the push technology, he said.
Ad ideas are emerging: Mr. Hickman said Netscape is talking to PC makers about using Netscape software as a user interface in place of the Windows 95 screen, or "desktop."
The PC maker would "own" the screen and sell space to content providers and advertisers, he explained.
Wired is in push as part of its mandate to be an early adopter of the technology. Mr. Wolf said Wired has a profitable, ad-supported PointCast channel. It's also launched a Microsoft channel as an R&D effort, after experimenting with and shutting down a channel on Netcaster.
Some key brands see value in using multiple push programs. Disney Online President Jake Winebaum said Disney is emphasizing IE4's program largely because of IE4's mass-market focus. But Disney also is present on Netcaster, which, despite Netscape's emphasis on the business market, still reaches many consumers.
Time Warner's CNN, meanwhile, bundles a news channel with IE4, while CNNfn is on Netcaster. CNN also is pushed over PointCast, pagers, a wireless service for PCs-and, of course, on TV.
Advertisers so far are staying away from browser push services. CNN and Wired don't even try to sell ads on their browser push programs. Why? Microsoft and Netscape do not give publishers a comprehensive way to track offline use of their push content.
Mr. Mehdi doesn't see a problem, noting that Microsoft offers a way for a log of offline hits to be uploaded to the content provider's server when a user goes back on the Web. But Wired's Mr. Wolf said the offline data is inadequate.
"The No. 1 technical challenge to the browser companies in the push space is providing great [audience measurement] reporting," Mr. Wolf said. "From the media perspective, that's the No. 1 thing that they've got to do."
Mr. Wolf thinks solutions will be found next year, noting that push pioneer PointCast found ways to measure its use.
PointCast just released its first audit, from the Audit Bureau of
Circulations, in which it reports 1 million unique visitors a month.
Mr. McCarthy said the arrival of Microsoft and Netscape will lead to shakeout. "We are very quickly winnowing from 45 push players early in the year to probably four or five by the middle of next year," he said. But he still bets growth in the browser push services will be held back by concerns about the technology.
A top executive at a major content site has opted not to install IE4 out of concern that megabytes of automatic downloads could gum up the office PC. A Web executive at a large computer marketer voiced similar concerns.
Netcaster is "clunky, kludgly," said Mr. McCarthy, while " 'captive desktop' "-Microsoft's Active Desktop-"crashes every system that we've installed it on."
Push ahead-but don't be pushed.