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Castanet clicks up distribution

Closely watched start-up Marimba takes wraps off a new suite of Java-based technology that lets Web sites broadcast information and software over the Internet.

    Marimba, a closely watched start-up company, today took the wraps off a new suite of Java-based technology that lets Web sites broadcast information and software over the Internet.

    Marimba's first products, collectively called Castanet, will include client and server software along with a development kit for distributing information across a network to clients, ranging from graphics to spreadsheets. The company has applied for a patent on its core technology.

    The company also said today that several leading Web sites, including those run by online magazine HotWired and search engine Excite, are already offering content through "channels" using Castanet.

    While traditional Web pages require a user to seek out a site to view information and run applets, the Marimba system will use a TV-style metaphor for delivering content or applications to users--broadcasting, or "pushing," information and programs out to desktops.

    This is a method of distributing information that was pioneered by PointCast and is receiving more attention from Internet companies such as Microsoft and Netscape Communications. Earlier this year, PointCast debuted a specialized client application--part Web browser, part screensaver--that automatically receives news headlines, financial information, and advertisements over the Net.

    The two leading browser companies, Microsoft and Netscape, have also made clear their intentions to offer Net broadcasting capabilities in the next releases of their products. For example, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 will feature "active themes," or onscreen widgets, that display news and other information on the Windows 95 desktop like a TV channel.

    "In the pull-model, the onus is always on the user to go back," said Ira Machevsky, a senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group. "These are devices to throw the electronic newspaper to your doorstep."

    But while most companies are focused primarily on broadcasting content, Castanet is expected to allow the distribution of Java applications such as a front-end to a database, which can be regularly updated by a network administrator. Analysts and developers hope that Castanet will appeal to companies that want to ease the task of constantly updating applications.

    "At the corporate level, it will help the MIS director who has to update 1,000 or 2,000 copies of an application," said Karl Jacob, CEO of Dimension X. "Users won't even notice it."

    Marimba also claims that Castanet can update news stories so quickly that it is "near real time," requires little network bandwidth, and can scale to millions of users. The improved performance of programs and content is due chiefly to the fact that Castanet allows Java code to "persist"--that is, to be stored locally on a hard disk--rather than disappearing when a PC is shut down.

    "That's one of the big holes in Java and network computers: the lack of persistence," said David Smith, research director at Gartner Group. "This really does use local storage intelligently. In real-world applications, download times are important."

    The Marimba system will feature a client-side "tuner" program for receiving data and a back-end "transmitter" program for broadcasting the data, both of which will be written in Java. The software applications and data channels themselves are stored on the user's hard drive instead of being downloaded over the Internet each time the user looks for new information.

    Marimba also unveiled a drag and drop development toolkit, called Bongo, for assembling broadcast data next week. Initially, Castanet will be limited to distributing Java applications for security reasons. The system will later allow for distribution of a variety of applications, including ActiveX controls. Version 1.1, due in the first half of 1997, will include encryption support and support for application deployment over public networks.

    Marimba's first product announcement has been eagerly anticipated by Silicon Valley. Headed up by Kim Polese, a former Sun Microsystems manager, the company is among the first to focus exclusively on developing Java applications. In addition to Polese, the company is staffed by several former Java engineers from Sun, including Jonathan Payne, Arthur van Hoff, and Sami Shaio.

    Founded in February, Marimba received its first round of venture funding from the Java Fund, handled by the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.