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PointCast 2.0 beta out

While Netscape and Microsoft work on their respective "push" technologies, PointCast posts the second major release of its software.

While Netscape Communications and Microsoft work on the first editions of their respective "push" technologies, PointCast has posted the second major release of its software.

As reported Friday by CNET's NEWS.COM, PointCast officially announced today its PointCast 2.0 software, which, along with several new software utilities, is designed to make it easier for business customers to control the kinds of information transmitted to users' computers.

The company quietly posted a beta version of PointCast 2.0 over the weekend, ahead of today's official release. The software can be downloaded for free from the company's Web site or from CNET's DOWNLOAD.COM software library.

PointCast is facing pressure to make its technology more friendly for corporations, something that Netscape and Microsoft are making a significant focus of their push packages. PointCast now has no controls for screening out information channels, allowing users to get horoscopes and sports scores along with more business-oriented fare such as financial news.

With PointCast 2.0, the company says it has improved performance of the software, as well as several new utilities--Corporate Broadcast Manager, Caching Manager, and Administrator--for allowing systems managers to control what information users can receive on their desktops.

Initially, PointCast 2.0 will be a 32-bit application available only for Windows 95 and NT. A 16-bit version of the software for Windows 3.1 will be available within two weeks, PointCast senior VP of marketing Jaleh Bisharat said.

PointCast is a pioneer of push technology, which turns traditional Web browsing on its head. Instead of having to manually type in a Web address to visit a site, push technology--also known as Webcasting--automatically transmits information directly to users.

The new utilities will replace a $995 PointCast I-Server, a program that allows corporations to reduce network congestion from PointCast broadcasts and to set up a personalized company channel. The utilities will be available for free this summer.

PointCast will also offer a new version of PointCast 2.0 called the Added Control client to allow managers to eliminate advertisements from broadcasts. But instead of receiving PointCast information broadcasts and software for free, the AC client will cost under $100, according to Bisharat.

"I think the majority will take it for free, but they will like the option," she added.

Netscape has released its Netcaster push technology into beta testing and will ship it with its Communicator software suite in June. Microsoft will release a beta version of Internet Explorer 4.0 with sophisticated push features within the next two months and plans to ship its product by the end of the year.

As with the Microsoft and Netscape solutions, PointCast will allow any Web site publisher to broadcast information to users of the PointCast 2.0 software through a feature known as PointCast Connections. Currently, the PointCast Network--an accompanying information service for its software featuring publishers like CNN and the New York Times--is composed of companies that maintain an advertising revenue-sharing deal with PointCast.

Today, PointCast also released Studio, a program that allows Connections channel providers to design their own Smart Screens, a feature that lets channels display content as screensavers.

PointCast 2.0 will also be the first push software to be based on the channel definition format (CDF), a new technology also backed by Microsoft. The companies promised that CDF will make it simpler for users to pick the information they want to receive and reduce network congestion.

Microsoft has submitted CDF to the World Wide Web Consortium for consideration as an official Internet standard. But the technology could be impeded because Netscape has declined to support it in Netcaster.

PointCast and Microsoft have closely allied themselves in other areas besides CDF. The company has licensed Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 browser and is integrating it into PointCast 2.0.

Microsoft has cut a deal with PointCast to make all of the company's information channels accessible from Internet Explorer 4.0, a move that could significantly boost the audience for PointCast broadcasts beyond their current 1.2 million users.

But its partnership with Microsoft could prove difficult for PointCast as the software giant makes its own efforts to aggregate content for Explorer 4.0 from outside companies, as well as from homegrown media properties such as MSNBC and Microsoft Network. PointCast derives most of its revenue from advertisements that adorn its channels, which will soon vie for attention with other content within Explorer 4.0.

In a conference call with press today, chief executive Chris Hassett reiterated PointCast's plans to offer subscription-based premium channels for specialized areas such as the financial services industry. Hassett added that the company hopes to introduce the for-pay channels later this year.

Opening its network to broadcasting from ordinary Web publishers could also generate some competitive friction for PointCast because it will not derive ad revenue from those channels.

However, some analysts believe that PointCast's client and industrial-strength broadcast servers may still provide it with a technological lead over its competitors.

"We'll see if Netscape and Microsoft can come up with the same scalability capabilities as PointCast," said Daniel Rimer, Internet analyst with investment banking firm Hambrecht & Quist. "PointCast has been in the game a lot longer. I'm not concerned that Microsoft and Netscape can get there, but it's going to take them a while."