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Microsoft pushes for business

The software giant will use its "push panel" to focus on how businesses can exploit its Webcasting technology.

Microsoft (MSFT) will use its "push panel" tomorrow to focus on how businesses, rather than consumers, can exploit its Webcasting technology.

The company will host a meeting for press and analysts designed to promote its approach for Webcasting technology, an area in which the company plans to compete aggressively with rival Netscape Communications (NSCP).

Microsoft's plans for push technology are not confined to the business market, but corporations are likely to be among the first to use it, to improve communications. Push automatically transmits information--from 401K plan information to stock quotes--to users' desktops instead of requiring them to manually venture out to Web sites.

Tomorrow, the company will announce partnerships with a number of leading business information providers who will create information "channels" for the Active Desktop, the push component of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, said Will Poole, senior director of business development at Microsoft. Poole said the company will announce partnerships with a number of general-interest information providers sometime in the future.

Although he declined to give the names of Microsoft's content partners, Poole did note that a report suggesting that the company would configure most of the featured channels on its Active Desktop with content created by Microsoft itself--such as MSNBC and Expedia--was inaccurate.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Poole said.

So far, Microsoft has identified only one of the featured channels, provided by PointCast, on the Active Desktop. PointCast, one of the pioneers of push technology with more than 1 million regular Webcast viewers, could help create a bigger audience for the Active Desktop.

Netscape is ramping up its push efforts this week as well. The company plans to release Netcaster into public beta testing this week, making its first substantial move to become a player in the push market.

Unlike Netscape, Microsoft isn't ready to release its Webcasting technology to the public yet. But it still plans to convince attendees that the Microsoft push technology is the most "manageable" solution for publishers and corporations. The company plans to discuss a new version of its Internet administration kit that will give business more control of the channels they tune into from work.

Microsoft says it won't release a final version of Explorer 4.0 until the summer.

To most observers, the competitive jousting already under way between Netscape and Microsoft will sound like the browser wars of last year redux. It's 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 will be just as high as for the basic browser.

Microsoft claims that the superiority of its push strategy stems from a technology called channel definition format (CDF). The company has proposed CDF as an Internet standard. Netscape says CDF is unnecessary.

But Microsoft will this week reiterate why it thinks CDF will give it an edge. According to Yusuf Mehdi, a group product manager at Microsoft, 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.

Still, being first to beta gives Netscape some advantage since push publishers will have to design their content specifically for Netcaster or the Active Desktop.

In April, Microsoft posted a "platform preview release" of Internet Explorer 4.0 that includes some rudimentary push capabilities, but the company hasn't yet introduced technology that uses CDF.

Market realities will likely force Web developers to support both Microsoft's and Netscape's push technologies to reach the broadest possible audience, at least until a clear leader emerges. While Netscape may have released Netcaster to the public first, the company is not an established leader for push technology, as it was in the market for standard Web browsers.

One content provider plans to develop channels for both Microsoft's and Netscape's push solutions to reach the broadest possible audience but doesn't think the rewrite will be too much of a burden.

"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."