Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Even when it's free, getting your news on-line has its limitations, and it's definitely not like picking up a newspaper and reading it

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #350 July 9, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Pity the poor newspaper or magazine publisher in this age of instant Internet information. They know that electronic, digital information is the way of the future and they see their competitors putting their publications onto the Net, but it's still not clear how any of them are going to turn it into a profit-making business.

    Take U.S. media giant Time-Warner. It's currently investing about $40 million in its Pathfinder Internet site, a huge, rambling collection of content (currently under reorganization) that includes, among other things, the full text of each new edition of Time magazine, posted late each Monday--probably before it reaches the readers of the printed edition.

    I like viewing it that way, and usually check it out on Tuesday mornings. I can scan the table of contents, click to the articles I'm interested in and save them onto my hard drive so that I can read them later, off-line, at my leisure. There are ads on the opening pages, but if you turn off images in your Web browser, you not only get your pages faster, you minimize the impact of the ads. In fact, Pathfinder helpfully provides a text-only home page, where the ads fade into minimal one-liners ( Effectively, free Time on the Net is competing with pay-per-copy Time in print. What's a publisher to do?

    But I still have to make that little bit of an effort to find my way to Time each week, and I have to scan the contents page and decide what interests me. Make that past tense: new software automates both of these processes--still for free.

    Worth checking out, for example, is the PointCast Network ( There, you can download software that will let you create your own, customizable news service. It works best with systems with a networked, high-speed Net connection; that way, it can get the news you want quickly, in the background, more or less continuously. (PointCast is a spinoff of software company Adobe, and is promising to support Macintosh and Unix as well as the Windows versions.)

    PointCast lets you set it to track up to 25 stocks (prices are delayed by 20 minutes from the trading floor), the weather, sports of your choice, news from 40 different industries, and even your horoscope. Information comes from credible sources like Reuters and Standard & Poor's Comstock. It can be set to deliver headlines to your screen when it notices that your computer is idle.

    At the same time, when it detects you're not busy, it also delivers ads, customized to your preferences. These ads, of course, are how PointCast is financing its network--by promising its advertisers a finely targeted audience.

    Click on a headline (or an ad) to get more information, via the ChannelViewer browser. You can't copy information from here or save it to a file, as you can in standard Web browsers, but PointCast claims it's going to rework its system to plug into the Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browser standards. Other competition is in the works. Time-Warner is offering Pathfinder Personal, Dow-Jones is promising the Wall Street Journal Interactive. Even IBM is getting into the act with InfoSage. All three promise customized, automated news and information, but all have a subscription rate. Subscription-based Internet services have, however, failed to get enough users in the past: if I have to pay, I might as well get a newspaper or magazine that I can read on the bus.

    Other software like FreeLoader ( will automatically update information from selected Web sites in the background, along with a service that will point you to sites with information in your areas of interest. Like PointCast, the service and software are free.

    PointCast is free (if you don't mind the ads), it's customizable, and it's within 20 minutes of being up-to-date. What's the downside?

    First, you won't get Business in Vancouver there; it's tailored to big, mostly U.S. news sources. As well, you lose the serendipity factor. When you get a newspaper like this one, you're getting information on more than your immediate, well-defined interests. Perhaps you're not a regular reader of, for instance, this column (hard as that is for me to imagine!). In flipping the pages, however, the headline grabs your attention and you scan the column, finding out about something you didn't know you were interested in.

    Services like PointCast or Freeloader, tailored to what we think are our wants, don't give us the opportunity to be grabbed in that way--and that's a big loss. Don't be too quick to count print out!

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan