NetCasting: interactive PC, passive TV converge

The web industry is poised to explode into the fourth dimension of technology reality: the convergence of the traditionally passive media of TV and radio with computing. This convergence creates a new model for a rich, interactive communications medium based on Internet technologies, appropriately termed NetCasting.

In 1996, we witnessed the introduction and rapid adoption of the other Web industry dimensions, Internet, Intranet and Electronic Commerce. Web Citizens quickly moved to join "surfer" communities in the form of online forums, E-mail centers, chat rooms, subject matter directories and indexes, traditional magazine-oriented media sites and shopping centers.

These virtual nomads grew accustomed to actively seeking and surfing for new relevant information based on a minimal learned awareness model starting from your favorite search and index site and ending up on new untapped Web site frontiers. Our browser bookmarks evolved into our own personal information channel listing and individuals became accustomed to actively tuning into their favorite Web sites for new information by clicking on their favorite bookmarks.

Agent-driven couch potato information consumption studies indicate real long-term viability to the notion of an electronic marketplace.

New Web sites found it hard to get their target audience's attention, so Web information providers turned to advertising and promotional activities to move people onto their sites. Content differentiation and providing a rich "I need to have this information" environment became the key drivers of the active Web surfing world. In the coming years, the world of NetCasting will evolve this model to a more personalized "Your specific interests and needs are important," agent-driven, couch potato, information consumption framework. In this environment, delivering relevant content, providing new content selections and interactively learning about your target audience's behavior and consumption patterns will be keys for success.

Netcasting industry and market players

NetCasting infancy can be traced to the early days of electronic mailing lists, personalized dynamically generated Web page services and video/audio broadcasting services such as RealAudio, MBONE and VDONet. Initial experimentation on interactive real time video and data using Internet-based technologies ushered a new approach to accessing and consuming information. As the Web exploded, new browser metaphors began to emerge based on a passive TV tuner model. Pointcast led this movement by offering a free advertising driven, multiple channel, fully interactive Web-based NetCasting world. Over a period of one year, new startups aggressively moved to develop this high-growth frontier. Some of the new players included Marimba Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.; BackWeb Technologies, San Jose, Calif.; DataChannel Corp., Bellevue, Wash.; Wayfarer Communications Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; Ifusion Com Corp., New York City; and Netdelivery Corp., Ft. Collins, Colo. Most of these technology providers and content distributors focused on building their own proprietary interactive distribution network leveraging existing open Internet technologies.

As the new model began to take off, the Web industry leaders, Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, Calif., and IBM/Lotus joined the crowd to quickly introduce industry defining architectural standards potentially leading to strategic first mover advantages. In the past months, Microsoft announced and demonstrated their Active Desktop, Active Platform and PC/TV convergence strategies, technologies and product prototypes. Netscape at Comdex'96 demonstrated their Constellation alternative desktop technology software component to Communicator. Lastly, IBM/Lotus announced their Domino.Broadcast server initiatives and moved to line up all the major providers of Net Broadcasting technologies and services including Pointcast, BackWeb and Marimba.

NetCasting architectural component and viewpoints

NetCasting technology and services can be logically broken down into the following service defining entities, namely:

NetCasting Tuner (Next Generation of Browser) -- provides the rich interactive multiple channel/sources user interface environment allowing the passive individual to sift and consume large quantities of information in an intuitive and intelligent manner with some form of customization and personalization based on his or her preferences and learned behavior. Currently, each NetCasting distribution network provides their own tuner. In the future, the market will consolidate to two major tuner platforms based on Microsoft and Netscape/JavaSoft initiatives and directly embedded in future iterations of today's browser technology. Architectural platform, protocols and development standards will be defined for the tuner environment. Vendors will emerge that capitalize on extending the tuner platform with snap on software components that introduce value add services such as an application interface (AI)-driven remote control to surf the millions of potential content channels. Most of the tuners will be hosted on PCs, but NCs and extendible Net TVs will emerge to receive this interactive programming.

NetCasting Core Network Services Infrastructure -- provides the necessary network protocols and "transmission" foundation. Standards such as Realtime Streaming Protocol (RTSP), Multicast IP and new polling, publish and subscribe protocols from companies such as Marimba and Tibco Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., would fall in this area. In addition, object middleware such as DCOM, Corba, IIOP would also be leveraged in delivering content. The use of repeaters and proxy caches to relay information channels similar to TV broadcasting would be capitalized. In the coming years, networking vendors such as Cisco and 3com stand to provide the hardware and software infrastructure capable of delivering NetCasting content. Proxy, firewall and Web platform providers such as Microsoft, Netscape and IBM/Lotus will provide the remaining software components necessary to build NetCasting networks. Innovative startups in the NetCasting frontier will aggressively license and partner with the market leaders to force defacto standards on the evolving market place.

NetCasting Server-based Content Distributors and Profilers -- provides the back-end transmission software for collecting, profiling and distributing information to millions of recipients over certain categorized channels using a two-way interactive dialog with the target entity, individual, company or reference group(s). Typical server issues such as performance, reliability, manageability and robustness will be key to success. The ability to track, profile and customize content to match your user desires will be another factor leading to success. Integration into other back-end services such as directory, messaging, database and EC hooks will be merged into the NetCasting transmission environment. Most of the current industry leaders will offer NetCasting solutions based on de facto and industry standards. Multiple standards will coexist for some time before content providers and installed tuners dictate which standards will win.

NetCasting Content Providers -- compelling NetCasting programming will be developed by traditional media super powers (Disney, Time-Warner, CBS, Dow Jones, Reuters), online aggregators (AOL and MSN), Net zones (Yahoo!, Excite, InfoSeek, CNET, Netscape) and new NetCasting aggregators (Pointcast, BackWeb). Development tools that can deliver rich interactive content based on industry and de facto standards will emerge to propel the growth and evolution of the Net. These tool vendors will extend existing Internet- Centric development paradigms and introduce a new NetCasting channel based on an application development paradigm.

In sum, organizations need to begin developing a strategy for incorporating and developing NetCasting into their Web initiatives since we are poised to evolve to a new paradigm incorporating the passivity of television and the interactivity of personal computing. In the next year, we will begin to see this new market evolve both in the consumer and business space to provide many rich application metaphors and services.

About the Author

Ameet Patel, ADT contributing editor, is an architectural manager at a Fortune 500 firm