A selective internet for the Internet Upstart PointCast does the surfing for you

March 03, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

CUPERTINO, Calif. -- There has been a fundamental shift in how people are using the Internet and a small Cupertino upstart called PointCast Inc. has been leading the way.

A year ago in February, PointCast introduced the first "push" Internet technology to feed information directly to users' computers -- rather than forcing them to go out and fetch it. Offering snippets of news, sports, weather and market quotes whenever an Internet-connected computer becomes idle, PointCast also allows users to point and click their way to more detailed information.

It's the deep detail of the Internet served up instantaneously to TV's couch-potato generation.

Talk about dichotomies: PointCast is a hybrid of television and print that manages to be unlike either. It's a company where new words must be created to describe its very mission, yet where other words are borrowed from existing media. Its competitors sing its praises as a pioneer at the same time they nip at PointCast's technological heels.

"They started a revolution," said Kelsey Selander, vice president of marketing at BackWeb Technologies in San Jose, Calif. "We thank PointCast for opening the door. They have a very strong system, but we have a different one that we believe is the next generation."

PointCast founder and chief executive Chris Hassett, 34, revels in the frenzy of activity his company has whipped up since it "point- casted" its first data Feb. 13, 1996.

When he founded PED Software Inc. -- PointCast's earliest corporate incarnation -- in 1992, Hassett never planned to

become a media mogul. He just wanted to market software that would streamline access to online data.

The little company enjoyed modest success with its shrink-wrapped "Journalist" program. The application allowed users with accounts on CompuServe or Prodigy to dial up a service, pull in information of interest and quickly sign off again.

As PED Software prepared to release an America Online version of its software, however, a graphics-laden blast called the World Wide Web hit the Internet and Hassett began to rethink his company's mission.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to take the big ride and build a huge company, but there wasn't any other way to do this right," He said.

Venture capital and corporate backing began to flow in for a total of $48 million so far. Hassett started to build staff; the reborn company started with a dozen employees in mid-1994, had 55 workers at the time of launch last year and now has more than 225 employees.

PointCast's technologists knew they would have to figure out how to serve up millions of articles per second to hundreds of thousands of people -- and now well over 1 million -- without causing the company's computers to bog down waiting for the information to arrive.

PointCast is built around a pair of high-speed database computers that store information gathered both from commercial wire services and from the Web.

Satellite dishes on the roof of PointCast's cramped Cupertino building collect some of the system's content, while four high-speed Internet lines dump more information in from the Web.

Twenty-five high-end personal computers make copies of the most "popular" data -- those tidbits requested most often by users -- and send the information off to PointCast subscribers. When a less popular piece of data is needed, the personal computer requests it from its more powerful database cousins and then sends it on its way.

Most of the time, the system works without a hitch. But once, when PointCast was 3-days-old, a "viewer" submitted a stock quote request with a typographical error -- a percent sign -- that brought the system to its knees.

Technicians diagnosed the problem quickly and had the system working again within a few minutes, but that experience -- and a six-hour crash during the nine-state power outage last summer -- made PointCast cautious. Emergency electrical generators have been installed, and a duplicate data center is being built in Texas to keep PointCast running in the event of disaster in Cupertino.

Despite all that, PointCast still is struggling to overcome the perception that it is intended for use only on personal computers with access to high-speed, ever-present Internet connections.

PointCast's software does allow home users to schedule automatic, brief updates; the computer can use a modem to dial an Internet service provider, download the latest PointCast updates and then sign off the Internet.

Hassett knows he can't rely on the capricious world of advertising to support his company completely, despite the fact that PointCast is considered a leader in Internet advertising revenue.

Each of the company's 50 advertising clients spends an average of $50,000 a month for 30-second animated pitches to users.

He won't say whether the privately held company is breaking even yet, but Hassett does acknowledge that he wants the company to have the same name recognition as the popular Navigator browser.

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