WavePhore's WaveTop technology allows content providers to broadcast data, such as Web pages, along the unused portions of TV or cable transmissions, called the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI). The signals come into a PC, television, set-top box, or other device containing an add-in card that supports VBI broadcasts as well as client software.
Intel has been focusing on a similar "push" technology with its Intercast technology.
An established infrastructure is crucial for this sort of technology, and right now, WavePhore appears to have more partners lined up for WaveTop than Intel has for Intercast. A number of content providers, including Time, People, Quote.com and The Weather Channel, have already signed deals to create information for WaveTop while the PBS network has agreed to broadcast it.
Also, a number of hardware manufacturers are making add-in cards for PCs that support WaveTop.
The Microsoft deal gives the WaveTop client a strong partner for distribution of the software. The WaveTop client will come in the next beta of Windows 98, due next month, and a final version of the product, due in the second quarter of next year.
By contrast, Microsoft has yet to sign a software distribution deal with Intel for Intercast, according to Alec Saunders, product marketing manager for Microsoft. "We're in continual discussions with Intel...God love them, they were pioneers in this area," he said.
Intercast technology similarly allows broadcasters to send out formatted Web pages and other information across the VBI. Content is created by the broadcasters, sent to local affiliates, and rebroadcast into homes by a transmission tower or local cable companies. A card in the user's PC takes the signal and runs the broadcast.
But for Intercast to catch on, all these elements need to be in place. This has not happened yet because there are relatively few users with Intercast cards and relatively few broadcasts that support Intercast. Moreover, local broadcasters often need to be on board to execute the broadcast, which is not always the case.
One of the major roadblocks for Intel is computer manufacturers. Few systems have shipped with Intercast cards. So far, Compaq is the only major vendor to offer Intercast. But this was only done during the Atlanta Olympics.
Patrick Gilbert, vice president and chief technology officer at WavePhore, and Microsoft executives downplayed the notion of direct competition. Intel, he pointed out, licenses technology from WavePhore.
The difference between the two products comes down to market positioning, he said. Intercast is being offered to broadcasters as technology that will complement current programming. A broadcaster like CBS, for instance, would use Intercast to provide Web links to the show that a viewer was currently being watched.
WavePhore, on the other hand, acts more like a self-contained network. Content providers digitize information into WaveTop. WavePhore, in conjunction with PBS, then broadcasts the information. The information may relate to a form of TV programming or may be a weather report similar to what a viewer might obtain from the web.
WavePhore gets most of its revenue from advertising and licensing deals with its content providers.
"They really have a dynamic channel lineup and you can expect more in the future," said Phil Holden, a product marketing manager at Microsoft.
Despite the apparent momentum building behind broadcast delivery and push technology, analysts remain skeptical. The initial fanfare for this technology has died down as consumers and IT departments have questioned whether they really want information beamed to them automatically at all hours of the day, said Stephan Somogyi, a principal with Gyroscope.
"I view this space with great trepidation," he said.