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Agents come in from the cold

One of the most hyped technologies of the '90s, intelligent agents are making a comeback--but don't expect them to be as clever as promised.

Intelligent agents, one of the most hyped technologies of the '90s, are making a comeback, but don't expect them to be as clever as originally promised.

Today, one Internet publisher, HotWired, introduced NewBot, a software program the company is describing as an "intelligent search agent" that will crawl the Net for news headlines that match a user's preferences.

But HotWired isn't the only company trying to breathe life back into agents.

Netscape Communications (NSCP) is developing an agent technology called Compass that will be included in the next major version of its Internet client, code-named Mercury. And Firefly Network has for months now been promoting its agent-based "passport" technology, which helps users pinpoint information.

The concept of intelligent agents was popularized by General Magic. The company devised a programming language called TeleScript for creating small programs or agents that would act on a user's behalf on a network.

Agents were supposed to be able to scour information services for data relevant to a user's tastes and to execute actions, such as making a stock trade or purchasing an airline ticket when prices fell below a certain threshold. But TeleScript never lived up to General Magic's original promise, partly because it was engineered to work on proprietary networks, not the Internet.

The Internet has only heightened the need for software that tracks and filters information for users. So-called push technology promises to answer part of that problem by automatically transmitting information rather than requiring people to find information themselves.

But push technology doesn't help users filter data broadcasts effectively. HotWired and other companies are developing agent technology to handle filtration and timely notification about new information. For example, NewBot polls more than 100 news sites around the Internet throughout the day, dispatching headlines and hyperlinks for complete news stories to users through a special ActiveX application.

"Push has come to connote very little personalization," said Ed Anuff, director of product management at HotWired. In addition to NewBot, HotWired has also invested heavily in developing push technology.

Still, the agent technology on the Internet today seems a far cry from the smart servants that would perform a range of services for users. Most analysts believe intelligent agent technology has a long way to go before it can perform such services in a network as anarchic as the Internet.

"The theoretical advantages of intelligent agents are undeniable," said Ted Julian, Internet research manager at International Data Corporation. "Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, what we can deliver now relative to those promises is relatively insignificant."

"The challenge for agents is that they have to have an unbelievable amount of flexibility if they're going to deliver on this Holy Grail promise," he said.