March 12, 1997 11:00 AM ET

Microsoft forms 'push' alliance
By Robert Lemos

  Microsoft Corp. has thrown down the other glove in its fight to shape the Web battlefield against competitor Netscape Communications Corp.

The Redmond, Wash., company prefaced the opening of Internet World by announcing its intention to standardize the format for "pushing" information to Web users.

Four other companies joined Microsoft in outlining a new standard for a channel definition format, or CDF, that will unify the interface between the vendors and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0. Another 30 companies have endorsed the specification, which Microsoft submitted to the World Wide Web Consortium earlier this week.

While not adding any innovations or functionality to existing push technology, the CDF will eliminate multiple browsers and plug-ins that - until now - have been necessary to receive "pushes" from information delivery vendors PointCast, AirMedia, BackWeb and FirstFloor Software. Executives from each of the companies were present in Los Angeles to support Microsoft's announcement.

A great deal of Microsoft's channel definition format is based on technology developed by PointCast, of Cupertino, Calif. PointCast intends to license the software needed to create content channels free of charge to any content publisher on the Web. (See related story, "PointCast to announce Internet version of local-access channel.")

"We believe this will open the door to thousands and thousands of publishers," said PointCast CEO and President Chris Hasset.

However, PointCast is no longer alone in the push universe. Joining it on the Web broadcasting scene are BackWeb, FirstFloor Software and Marimba, just to name a few. Each product requires a different viewer to receive an information channel over the Web.

FirstFloor Software's director of engineering, Nilay Patel, likened the situation to needing a different TV set for each television channel that a viewer wanted to watch. "The channel definition format creates a single format so that any channel can be viewed," Patel said.

"This is not an extension in functionality," said Microsoft Vice President Brad Chase, "but an extension in scope." By building a common framework for pushing information to users, Microsoft is giving content providers the potential for 100 percent access to Internet Explorer 4.0 users and - if the format is standardized - to all Web users, an audience currently estimated at 20 million.

The conspicuous absence of Netscape from the announcement hinted that supplying the protocols for content channels may turn into another weapon in the battle of browsers.

PointCast's Hasset was adamant about avoiding multiple standards.

"PointCast wants a single ubiquitous standard," he said. If so, it seems likely that it will be Microsoft's.

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