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Partners precede Microsoft push

When it arrives, Active Channels for Internet Explorer 4.0 will push content from more than a dozen publishers, Microsoft announces.

SAN FRANCISCO--Its "push" technology isn't baked yet, but that didn't stop Microsoft (MSFT) from announcing today a collection of partnerships with publishers who will provide business "channels" for the Internet Explorer 4.0 browser.

Microsoft announced more than a dozen business publishers that will create channels for the upgrade of its browser, due this summer.

Dubbed Active Channels, the pushed or Webcast information for Explorer 4.0 will be important in drawing an audience to the browser and in distinguishing it from the offerings of chief competitor Netscape Communications (NSCP). At a press event staged here, Microsoft highlighted the aspects of its push technology, both content and software, that are geared toward business.

Microsoft said it has garnered the support of a number of leading business publications, including Desktop Data, the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, Fortune, Forbes, First Call, Individual's Newspage, Dun and Bradstreet's Online channel, and several channels from publisher Reed Elsevier, including Lexis-Nexis, the Official Airline Guide, and Variety.

In addition, Microsoft and Tibco said IE 4.0 will be able to receive pushed content from publishers that use Tibco's "publish-and-subscribe" middleware, a technology that reduces the amount of bandwidth used up by data broadcasts.

Eventually, Microsoft will also announce content partners oriented to more general-interest readers. But for today it was focusing on the business audience, the same market that Netscape considers crucial to its survival.

It's still unclear whether push technology will become a popular method of distributing information over the Internet, but many observers think the stakes of the push battle are just as high as for the basic browser market. Push enables publishers or companies to transmit information immediately to users' desktops rather than requiring them to trek out to traditional Web sites.

Many publishers view push as an important new way of communicating timely information to readers.

"One of most valuable things we're doing now is, if we have a big story, an editor sends email to all of our subscribers," said Tom Baker, business director of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Division. "That's not very sophisticated. Anything that enables the push process to get more intelligent is important. People want to be told when there's news."

However, information systems managers may not be as excited about information--from sports scores to horoscopes--being beamed onto their networks from the Internet. Microsoft says that it will provide a tool, called the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK), that let IS managers filter out specific channels.

All of the channels from the business publishers announced today will be included in IEAK. A number of consumer-oriented publishers--and possibly some of the business information providers announced today--will also be featured channels in Internet Explorer 4.0, Yusuf Mehdi, director of marketing at Microsoft, said today.

Mehdi said it hasn't been decided which or how many channels will be featured in Internet Explorer. PointCast is the only information provider Microsoft has publicly said will be included in Explorer 4.0.

Microsoft also claims that its push technology is better for businesses than Netscape's Netcaster software because it employs a technology called channel definition format (CDF). The company has proposed CDF as an Internet standard, but Netscape says it is unnecessary.

According to Mehdi, a Web publisher that uses CDF will be able to reduce the amount of network traffic occupied by push broadcasts. Mehdi also said CDF will make it easier for publishers to group pushed content into categories--such as football or economics--so that users can pinpoint information.

One publisher said that CDF was an important reason why his company chose to go with Microsoft rather than Netscape. "Standards are real important to me," said David Herman, director of applications and alliances at Dun and Bradstreet. "I don't want to have to create multiple channels."

He said that his company's relationship with Microsoft wouldn't stop it from working with Netscape, but that it has no plans to do so.

Still, other publishers are creating push channels for both Netscape and Microsoft in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

"It looks like we're going to have do some porting from Netcaster to Active Desktop," said Richard Zahradnik, vice president of CNNfn's Interactive division. "Though it looks like a task, it doesn't look like an insurmountable task."