Web Channel Development for Dummies (with CD-ROM)


Web channels, the newest and coolest Internet medium, aren't just for experts and gurus. If you've ever thought about getting into Webcasting with your own channel, then Web Channel Development For Dummies can get you going in a jiffy. Author and multimedia developer Damon Dean guides you through the ins and outs of Microsoft Internet Explorer Active Channels, Netscape Netcaster Channels, PointCast, and ...
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Web channels, the newest and coolest Internet medium, aren't just for experts and gurus. If you've ever thought about getting into Webcasting with your own channel, then Web Channel Development For Dummies can get you going in a jiffy. Author and multimedia developer Damon Dean guides you through the ins and outs of Microsoft Internet Explorer Active Channels, Netscape Netcaster Channels, PointCast, and Marimba's Castanet.

In plain English, explore these important areas:

  • Discovering which Channel format is right for you
  • Making your first channel by using simple HTML
  • Creating dynamite dynamic pages with JavaScript and Dynamic HTML
  • Using the Channel Definition Format (CDF) to create Internet Explorer Active Channels and content for the PointCast Business Network
  • Finding out what it takes to create Netscape Netcaster and Marimba Castanet channels
  • Making great content that keeps people coming back
  • Determining when to update and when to upgrade
  • Locating the hottest channels and seeing what they're doing right

Plus, the bonus Web Channel Development For Dummies CD-ROM includes software you can use to create your own Web channel, including

  • Sample pages for Netcaster, PointCast, and Internet Explorer channels
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and FrontPage Express
  • A trial version of Adobe Photoshop 4.01, the acclaimed graphics editor
  • Shareware versions of HTML editors for both Mac and PC users, including CoolEdit, BB Edit Lite, and HoTMetaL Lite
  • The Castanet Transmitter and Castanet Tuner from Marimba

With Web Channel Development For Dummies, you can and broadcastgreat channels in a flash!

Explains how to set up web channels that will bring changing web site information to the user, rather than the user searching the web. Focuses on Netscape Netcaster and Internet Explorer 4.0.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780764503092
  • Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/28/1997
  • Series: For Dummies Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 7.41 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Table of Contents


About This Book
How This Book Is Organized
Part I: An Introduction to Webcasting
Part II: Webcasting the Microsoft Way
Part III: Webcasting the Netscape Way
Part IV: Maintaining and Upgrading Your Channel
Part V: The Part of Tens
Part VI: Appendixes
Stuff You Don't Need to Read
Icons Used in This Book
About the CD-ROM
Where to Go from Here

Part I: An Introduction to Webcasting

Chapter 1: The Wild, Wild World of Webcasting
Webcasting Brings the Internet to You
What is webcasting exactly?
A brief word about desire
Can you explain that whole channel thing?
What's the difference between a really good web site and a web channel?
Tuning in to Webcasting
Webcasting without the web browser
The tools of choice
What's the downside?
How do the web browsers fit into webcasting?
Internet Explorer's webcasting basics
Netcaster, Netscape's built-in web channel viewer
Get Ready to Webcast!
Chapter 2: Web Channels and the Tools to Build Them
The Hierarchy of Web Channels
You Always Need Graphics
Don't Give Up The Spinning Icons Just Yet
HTML Gets You Your First Web Channel
JavaScript Brings Your First Web Channel Alive
What about JScript and VBScript in channels?
The Java Channel Machine
The Java applet inside...HTML
Java sans HTML
Proprietary Channels for the High End
Ack! It Seems Like a Lot!
Chapter 3: Designing Your First Channel
Should You Have a Web Channel?
Pop Quiz: Are You Ready for Webcasting?
Goals Made for Achieving
A Surprise Web-Site Inspection!
Web-site firestorms
Take small bites, not huge portions
Preaching to the Choir
The Five Immutable Laws of Web Channel Design
Rule #1: Pick a viewer and stick with it
Rule #2: Always make the sauce first (and don't forget the measuring cup)
Rule #3: Make your interface big...once
Rule #4: You're a magazine; so act like one
Rule #5: Always have the feedback button
Are You Ready to Push Yourself?

Part II: Webcasting the Microsoft Way

Chapter 4: Exploring the New Internet Explorer
Grabbin' a Copy of That New Internet Explorer
Breaking Down The New Internet Explorer 4.0
Push me the content!
On your desktop, all channels are Active Channels
CDF does not have Mob ties
Click! You're set up!
Come on! Everyone is subscribing...to anything
You have options in the Subscription menu
Keeping itemized time
Where Do PointCast and BackWeb Fit in?
Chapter 5: Channels the Quick and Painless Way -- with Explorer
Step One: Selecting the Pages to Push
Can you push your web site front page as it is?
How many pages should you push?
Step Two: Creating a CDF File
Naming your CDF
The CDF header
Specifying the channel and the CDF
Setting titles, logos, and abstracts
Setting your menu links
Default scheduling
Maintaining LASTMOD
The whole enchilada
Posting the CDF file
Step Three: Getting on the Active Channel Guide
The big setup: The preview page
The big catch: SiteBuilder membership
Catch number two: Dynamic HTML
Step Four: Promoting Your Channel
Advanced Features of Internet Explorer 4.0
Accessing the Active Desktop
Active e-mail and screen savers
Chapter 6: Making Connections with The PointCast Business Network
Getting The PointCast Business Network
A Brief Tour of the Push Leader
Configuring channels in PointCast
Browsing PointCast channels actively
Browsing PointCast channels passively
Creating Channels in The PointCast Business Network
Finding the Connections Builder
Channel creation with the Wizard
Step one: Introduction
Step two: Article properties
Step three: Configuration
The Connections Builder mini-app
Promoting Your PointCast Channel
Chapter 7: Other Cool Things to Do with Channel Definition Format (CDF)
I Like My Desktops Active
Why go to the Active Desktop?
A brief primer on how the Active Desktop works
Active Desktop and Active Channel CDFs: Are they different?
Just your typical Active Desktop CDF
Build, then post, but remember the catches
Does HTML Make a Wonderful Screen Saver?
Your Channel Update Is in Your Inbox

Part III: Webcasting the Netscape Way

Chapter 8: Getting Acquainted with the Netcaster
Grabbing a Copy of Netcaster
So Just What Is Netcaster?
The Netcaster Webtop is your stage
Keep track of channels while dropping your Drawer(s)
Honey, where's my Channel Finder?
The Channel Finder: What is it?
The kind of subscribing that only a doctor should do
How Does Castanet Fit into Netcaster?
Is it Worth Developing Channels for Netcaster?
Chapter 9: Netcaster Journalism
About All That Content I Already Have
Rapunzel, Lay Down Your Hierarchy!
Just Enough JavaScript to Subscribe
If you've got it, flaunt it!
Property values are going up...or was that under?
Calling all Netcasters! Calling all Netcasters!
A channel by any other name...isn't a channel
Telling AbsoluteTime and IntervalTime
Hey, man, how much cache you got on ya?
Just how low can you go?
No, over to the left a little
Beam me up, Server
I got it! Now what?
Can a Wave of the Wand Eliminate All This Work?
Instant Webtops: Just Add Water
Wizard hard drive trickery
We're off to see the Wizard
Reveal to me your sections, my dear
Hide your drawers
Poof! There's your channel
Promoting Your Netcaster Channel
Chapter 10: Using Castanet to Push Your Message
Getting Castanet Tuner and More
What is Castanet, Anyway?
Attributes of Castanet
When to use Castanet
Trying Castanet
Install and configure the Castanet Tuner
Subscribe to Castanet channels
Managing channels
Installing the Transmitter
Publishing a Channel
Planning Your Channel
Using Bongo to Modify a Castanet Channel
Going Further

Part IV: Maintaining and Upgrading Your Channel

Chapter 11: They Came. Now Make Sure They Come Back.
Assembling Your Team of Channel Experts
Jam Session: Nerf Weapons Needed
Seven Ways to Bring 'Em Back
Give away the good stuff
The daily X
Testing the pulse of your audience
Have some company
Whet their appetite by using a tag
Never underestimate the integrated application
Add a feature
You Push Your Survey In; You Push Your Survey Out
What do you really want to know today?
It's all in the delivery
Chapter 12: When It's Time for a Face-Lift
You Have Change...and Then You Have CHANGE
Remaking Your Channel
Touching everything but the kitchen sink
Touching everything and the kitchen sink
Changing the Marimba's big diapers
Is Movin' on Up (Or Down) Worth The Work?
When moving down is moving up
What's best for the business

Part V: The Part of Tens

Chapter 13: Ten Web Channels That You Need to See
The Mining Company
The Media Channels
The Wall Street Journal
The New York Times
The MapQuest Channel
The Frommer's Guide
Other Channels to See
Chapter 14: Nearly Ten Simple JavaScript Tricks That Make Your Channel Great
Pull-Down Menus
Status Bar Change
Automatic Redirect
Animated Image Menus
Automated New!
Remote Controller
Chapter 15: Ten Web Channel Boo-Boos That Make Users Mad
Remember the Date
Test Your Channel Before You Post
Check Your Spelling
Push in Parallel
Don't Spawn Windows
Remember the E-Mail Address
Watch Out Up Front!
Let People Know What They Need
Don't Get Too Chunky or Too Thin
Keep It Simple
Chapter 16: Ten JavaScript and Dynamic HTML Resources on the Internet
Dynamic HTML Zone
Web Monkey
JavaScript Planet
The JavaScript Source
Web Developers Virtual Library
Cut-and-Paste JavaScript
Chapter 17: Ten Quick Steps to Creating a "Dynamic" Dynamic HTML Preview Page
Step One: Set Your Styles
Step Two: Make Your Preview Page Browser-Independent
Step Three: Define the Actor
Step Four: Creating a Timeline
Step Five: Animating an Object
Step Six: Starting the Animation
Step Seven: Creating and Cueing Your Actors
Step Eight: Animating Your Actors
Step Nine: Remember Your Variables
Step Ten: Load Your Body
The Whole Enchilada

Part VI: Appendixes

Appendix A: A Glossary of Webcasting Terms
Active Channels
Active Channel Guide
Active Desktop
Active Screen Savers
Castanet Tuner
Castanet Transmitter
Channel Bar
Channel Definition Format (CDF)
Channel Finder
Connections Builder
Dynamic HTML
Editorial Calendar
PointCast Business Network
PointCast Studio
Preview Page
Web Channel
Web-Channel Viewer
Appendix B: Web Channel Companies and How to Contact Them
Appendix C: What's on the CD?
System Requirements
How to Use the CD with Microsoft Windows
If you are running Windows 95, follow these steps to get to the items on the CD
If you are running Windows 3.1 (or 3.11), follow these steps to get to the items on the CD
Installing the CD Software for Windows
How to use the CD with the Mac OS
What You'll Find on the CD
BBEdit Lite 4.0
Castanet Tuner
Castanet Transmitter
Cool Edit
HotMetal 3.0 Lite
Internet Explorer 4.0
PageMill 2.0
Sample files on the disk
If You've Got Problems (Of the CD Kind)


License Agreement

Installation Instructions

Book Registration Information

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First Chapter

Chapter 1
The Wild, Wild World of Webcasting

In This Chapter

  • What is webcasting, anyway?
  • Web channels and how they work
  • The differences between web channels and web sites
  • Different types of web channels that do and don't need a web browser

As a public service, I thought I'd get the hype out the way first. So, just for a second, imagine that lots of beautiful people are scampering around, raising their drinks around their computers, wearing next to nothing, playing Frisbee with a golden retriever. Try to picture the guy who does the Visa commercials reading the following text:

Web browsing is for wimps. Why browse if you can have the Internet come to you? Forget loading pages. Forget waiting for a decent connection speed. Forget all the things you hate about the Internet.

After you hit the computer in the morning, you get the news, the sports, and the stocks right alongside of your cereal. You find out what new CDs are to be released that day and why al dente is better than alfresco. And by the time you're off to work, you're tellin' all your friends on the subway the difference between a Manhattan and a Rob Roy!

The technology's called webcasting, and it's the newest thing on the Net. Webcasting is the give-me-what-I-want-and-get-out-of-my-way version of the Internet. That's why they also call it push technology. It's the Internet...but with a New York state of mind. So grab your web viewer and get ready to push, because webcasting is here to stay, and it doesn't take to pulling anymore.

Okay, I feel better. Now for the sobering truth: Webcasting can't take ten years off your life, three inches off your waist, or get you that tax refund you've been trying to find. It can't make you a sports hero or a movie star, and, I'm sad to report, it can't make your hair grow back.

Despite all these drawbacks, however, you can find some good in webcasting. Webcasting can bring the Internet to you without you so much as touching your PC, which gives you all sorts of chances to say, "Look, Ma -- no hands!" Webcasting can provide a new and -- dare I say? -- efficient way for you to communicate with your customers. If you're nice and whisper gently in its ear, webcasting can provide you with a better way of reaching millions of people on the Internet. And, really, who doesn't need a million new friends?

Webcasting Brings the Internet to You

How is webcasting going to revolutionize the Internet? Who knows? But I can tell you that webcasting changes the way that people use the Internet, and that's pretty big news. The main focus of webcasting is to bring content from the Internet to the end user rather than vice versa, which is the way the Net works right now.

Developers throw around the word content all the time, and the term can mean just about anything. For the purposes of this book, however, I loosely define content as text, graphics, sound, and video, as well as applications.

Well, all right! You may have noticed a big push lately to increase the interactivity and the appeal of web sites. Everybody wants to be the "destination site" or "bookmark site" on the Internet. That's because everyone and his mother has a web site. The joke around Silicon Valley is that, inside the city limits, the police ask you to provide proof of a URL along with proof of insurance if they pull you over.

More web sites mean more traffic and more people online. More people online means that the Internet is getting slower and information is getting harder to find. The slower the Internet gets and the harder the information is to find, the more likely people are to just go and do something else. Given all the money that's been invested on the Net infrastructure and on its content, an Internet with no foot traffic is likely to make a lot of venture capitalists more than a little uneasy. So you can understand why the search for new ways of delivering content to users has become such a big deal.

That said, you need to understand that webcasting isn't rocket science. In fact, it's not even science. Webcasting simply begins with the assumption that people would rather have some kinds of information come to them instead of needing to go out on the Web to get it themselves all the time. The philosophy behind this concept is pretty much the same as that behind television -- but without all the commercials.

What is webcasting exactly?

Although webcasting sounds like something you'd see on the Fly Fishing Channel ("Watch carefully as Bob webcasts onto the mouth of the river in search of the ever-elusive big-mouthed bass"), it's really all about the process of delivering content directly to your PC, without you ever needing to touch a button.

I know that may sound a lot like hype, but it's true. A not-so-small company (not anymore, at least) named PointCast provides a great example. PointCast developed an ingenious product, the PointCast Business Network, which works as a screen saver on your PC. Whenever you aren't doing anything at your PC, the PointCast Businees Network kicks in and uses the Internet to deliver up-to-the-minute news, sports, and business headlines right to your PC (see Figure 1-1). It's simple, efficient, and requires virtually no effort on the part of the user. Just set it to the PointCast Business Network and wait for the content to come to you. With more than a million users, PointCast has staked its claim as the first bonafide webcasting success story.

A good way to conceptualize webcasting is to think of the whole thing as the Web in reverse. The basics are essentially the same. On your PC, you have a piece of software, which displays content. (Lots of kinds of software are available, and I discuss those later.) On the Internet, a server houses the content that it subsequently transfers to your PC on request. So far so good. Instead of using your web browser to go out and search for that content on the Web, however, you subscribe to a channel, and then, on a regular basis, the content from that channel downloads to your PC. Your biggest investment is finding the right channels to fit your interests, but you need to find each one only once!

A channel is very loosely defined as content that is delivered to your PC. For a more complete definition, see the section entitled "Can you explain that whole channel thing?", later in this chapter.

Webcasting works because of a technique called push. Push simply means that the channel content gets sent from the Internet to your PC, without you specifically needing to request it. You may be wondering just how content is going to magically appear on your desktop, particularly if you didn't do anything! Push happens because you set up a subscription to a channel, indicating when you want the content to come to you. After that subscription is set, all of the big-time negotiation between my computer and the server goes on without me even knowing about it.

What's even better about push is that you don't need to be online to take advantage of it. Most webcasting products enable you to set up your software so that it goes out and gets updates while you're asleep, away from home, or even out to lunch. All that you need is an Internet connection and, of course, to leave the computer turned on.

The "other" definition of webcasting

Webcasting wasn't always about channels, subscriptions, and Internet transmissions while you sleep. Originally, the term webcasting referred to a "live" broadcast event that happened at a Web site. With the advent of Java applets, Cool Talk, and Real Audio, delivering constantly updated content to a site became much easier, with sites such as ESPNET.Sportszone and IBM's Olympic sites leading the way.

A very good recent example of this trend is the Gary Kasparov versus Big Blue chess competition. Every day during the competition, IBM broadcast the match, move by move, on one of its Web sites by using a Java applet. The company also provided commentary via live chat. The result was that you could watch the match unfold as it unfolded -- not that it was unfolding all that swiftly, of course.

How successful these types of ventures may be in the future remains to be seen. A number of web channel viewers now support Java (and other technologies, as well). So you're likely to see similar types of broadcasts come directly to web channels in the very near future.

A brief word about desire

The concept may seem obvious -- so obvious, in fact, that I forgot to put it in here the first time that I wrote this chapter -- but the whole idea behind webcasting is to take advantage of people's need to remain constantly informed. The most advanced pagers deliver news headlines and stock quotes directly to you, no matter where you are in the world. Personal communication is a multibillion dollar industry and is based very simply on people's desire to constantly keep informed.

Webcasting is the Internet's version of this desire. The difference is that to broadcast something obscure, such as the latest in spring fashion, over a pager is totally cost prohibitive, not to mention unfocused. But on the Internet, you may have thousands of people who'd gladly pay to have that kind of information sent to them every morning. And if thousands of people want that kind of information, at least a dozen or so companies are going to want to get their message to those people. Most of those people have money, too. Ah, commerce!

Can you explain that whole channel thing?

Web channels are, for the most part, very similar to television channels but with some key differences that are worth exploring. The biggest difference involves signals. TV stations broadcast a signal through a transmitter out to the world. If the signal is strong enough, and I have an antenna, I can receive the signal and see what's on the channel by firing up the old television.

That's not quite how web channels work. A web channel doesn't really use a transmitter, per se. All the channel content sits on another computer on the Internet, called a server. When I subscribe to a channel, my computer sends a signal to the server on the Internet, telling it to send me the content.

Now here's the tricky part: Rather than send me everything on the server, which would be redundant, the server and my computer carry on a small discussion about what channel content I already have on my computer. After they figure out the differences between what I have and what the server has, they send me all the stuff I don't have, as well as updates to the information I already have on my computer. These differences between TV channel transmission and web channel transmission are shown in Figure 1-2.

This leads to the second big difference between TV channels and web channels, which is their content. Television channels send big, fat video signals that people can just suck right up and enjoy. On the Internet, having that kind of bandwidth is a pipe dream. So, at least for now, most web channel content consists of the same basic materials as Web pages, meaning small graphics, small audio, small applications, and a whole lot of text. On average, you can expect these files to range anywhere from 1K to 1MB in size.

What's the difference between a really good web site and a web channel?

That's a sensational question! Thanks for keeping me honest. If you were just comparing a basic web site and a simple web channel, the differences would be pretty dramatic. Channels update their content continuously and push that content to the user (as I mention earlier in this chapter in "What is webcasting exactly?"), while on the average web site, content gets updated far less frequently, and you must go to the site to get that information.

As you get to the higher end of the web site world, however, considering sites such as ESPNET.Sportszone.com, ABCNews.com, and CNET.com, the differences seem a lot less clear. Take ESPN as an example. Figure 1-3 shows the new Game Log feature at the SportsZone site. Game Log is a feature built into Game Cast -- a Java applet that constantly updates the status of a baseball game, right down to each and every pitch. Game Cast updates the site, on average, every 30 or 40 seconds, providing game statistics as well as player profiles. Game Tracker runs on your desktop in its own window, so you can shut down Netscape, and Game Cast still keeps the connection to ESPN active.

If that's not the essence of webcasting, I don't know what is! I still, however, needed to go to the ESPN site, search for the right game, launch the application, and then shut down the other windows after Game Cast was running. If the ESPN Game Cast were a web channel, I'd already have configured it for the game. Activating the web channel would have brought the game up automatically.

Another example that highlights the difference between advanced web sites and web channels is ABCNews.com. ABC news has both a web site and a web channel on the Internet. As Figure 1-4 shows, the physical distinctions between the two are pretty slight. The content on the site and the channel are nearly identical, and both are available through Netscape Communicator.

The primary difference between the two is that, with the web channel, you choose up front how you want the interface to appear. You also get to select how often you want the channel to update. On the site, you don't have these options.

What these examples demonstrate, more than anything, is that webcasting is an evolution of the Web, not a revolution to replace it. The Game Cast is an example of a push technology that's in use at a web site. It's a great piece of technology and better than any number of web channels, but again, the whole idea behind web channels is to eliminate steps and bring you the content you want without you needing to spend time finding it.

Tuning in to Webcasting

Perhaps you've noticed, but I've been euphemistically throwing around the words desktop, computer, and software, without really touching on what you actually use to view web channels. That's because I'm sneaky. (And also because I wanted to wait until this section to lay everything out on the line.)

Actually, you have quite a few options for viewing web channels -- in large part because of the number of formats that currently exist for web channels. That's the part that no one ever tells you about in the hype. There is no such thing as a single, all-encompassing web-channel format. Instead, a number of formats are all vying for market share and for the collective mind share of the Internet user.

Maestro, one more time, for way too much emphasis! There is no one all-encompassing web-channel format. You must choose between the competing formats in developing a web channel.

If you're looking to blame someone, as I was, you're just going to be frustrated, because no one company has dominated this market. Push technology and webcasting caught a lot of people off guard, most notably Netscape and Microsoft. Nobody expected PointCast to do as well as it did, except for maybe the people at PointCast.

Webcasting suffers from what I call the cockroach syndrome. If you've got a room full of cockroaches in the dark, and you turn on the light, they all scurry off in different directions. The development of webcasting was as if someone saw PointCast, yelled "Push!" -- and software companies all ran off in different directions to develop webcasting tools.

The result, unfortunately, is that web channels don't share a common standard, leaving you and me with the unenviable task of having to choose among competing standards. This situation involves both good news and bad news. The good news is that, over the past year, webcasting has consolidated down to two basic types of web-channel viewers -- those that use a web browser and those that don't. De facto standards are beginning to emerge, with several of the companies that make web channels partnering with either Netscape or Microsoft to support their web-channel viewers in the latest versions of Communicator and Explorer.

Which leads us to the bad news, I'm afraid. Even now, Netscape and Microsoft haven't learned to play nice yet and work with the same standards for the browsers! So developing a web channel for Internet Explorer is different than developing one for Communicator. Make no mistake -- as a developer, your biggest challenge is in choosing between these two different standards.

Webcasting without the web browser

Why forget about the web browser entirely? Zillions of people are out there with web browsers, and they're probably not all that interested in trashing them just because some yahoo writing a ...For Dummies® book thinks that doing so is a good idea. Nevertheless, this yahoo thinks that the following list offers some very good reasons to step up and leave the web browser behind:

  • Web browsers can be slower than many web non-browser channel viewers. Web browsers do a lot of stuff these days. They're e-mail clients, HTML editors, news readers -- and I hear that the new Internet Explorer even reminds you to take out the trash on Tuesdays. (Memo to myself: Patent that idea before Bill Gates sees this book.) They also employ a lot of new technology, all of which affects the connection time and the burden on your processor.
  • Proprietary web-channel tools are better for big companies. One of the growing sub-segments of webcasting is in corporate environments. Specifically, many companies are looking to communicate more effectively with their sales staffs and other employees who work off-site. Many of the proprietary web-channel tools are geared towards creating large-scale communications tools for these types of companies.
  • Web-channel viewers are simpler. Web-channel viewers do only two things: get content and display it. They're designed to get information whenever they're told to, and that's all they really do. Web browsers try to be your one-stop shop for the Internet by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.

The tools of choice

If webcasting in the face of steep competition from Microsoft and Netscape sounds like a tough sell, that's because it is. Nevertheless, some companies have been successful in this area. Two companies, PointCast and Marimba, stand out above the rest, in part because they've developed great tools but also because they represent the current trend in web-channel development. Both companies are deeply involved with one of the big browser companies in supporting a set of standards for webcasting.

Be sure to check out the PointCast and the Marimba software on the CD! See Appendix C for details.

The aforementioned PointCast has been at this task longer than anyone. With more than a million users, they've got the largest installed base of web-channel viewers around. Their new tool, PointCast Connections, enables you to create a web channel that's accessible through the PointCast Network (see Figure 1-5). Together with Microsoft, they've developed a set of standards known as the Channel Definition Format, which can enable you to turn any web page into a web channel.

On the opposite side of the fence is Marimba and its Java-based suite of products. The products include the Castanet Tuner, a web-channel viewer, Bongo (a development tool for the tuner), and the Castanet Transmitter, which manages data going to and from the server. Unlike PointCast, Marimba has partnered with Netscape and made the Castanet Tuner accessible from within Netscape Communicator 4.0.

What's the downside?

Just about everything involves a catch of some type, and these web-channel tools are no different. Like it or not, after you start using these tools, it'll be some time before you finally get used to the development environment. Some of the other webcasting tools that I don't mention in the preceding sections, such as BackWeb and Intermind, use completely different languages to create web-channel content. Before jumping on board one of these tools, you need to weigh the costs associated with the ramp.

The other thing to consider is the strength of the companies that offer these other tools. The Internet is notorious for its here-today-and-gone-tomorrow companies. Although both Marimba and PointCast are about as solid as such companies come, they're now squarely in the middle of the browser war. And, relatively speaking, their installed bases are low, in comparison to Netscape and Microsoft. Granted, PointCast has been exceptionally successful, and Marimba is getting a lot of mileage out of being in the Netscape corner, but neither company can boast the same kinds of installed base figures as can either of the browsers. For developers of web channels, this fact simply means that you should look at these companies and their products with a very keen eye.

How do the web browsers fit into webcasting?

Not to put too fine a point on things, but the browsers seem to have been caught with their virtual pants down. Just how true this statement is no one really knows, but you get the feeling that neither Netscape nor Microsoft saw webcasting coming. They were just moving along, spending their time and money trying to bury each other with new features in their browsers. and then -- whamo! Webcasting came along and clipped them from behind.

I have this feeling not because I think that these companies are slow but because of the ways in which their webcasting strategies have emerged. Usually, big-time advances in web development go past the World Wide Web Consortium (or, if you're into shortcut terms, W3). The W3 was formed to facilitate the creation and management of standards for the Internet. As such, they've helped to set the standards for HTML, JavaScript, Dynamic HTML, and a host of other web technologies over the past five years. The big boys developed their HTML and Java standards with the blessing of this organization, and concerning webcasting, you'd think the W3 Consortium would have exercised the same kind of oversight. Microsoft, to its credit, has filed a standards paper with the consortium on webcasting but did so only after its release of the feature in the latest version of Internet Explorer.

For more information on the W3 consortium, point your (gasp!) web browser to www.w3.org, the leading web site for information on developing technologies on the Internet. And who knows? The organization may even develop a web channel someday.

Without a formal definition of webcasting from the W3 consortium, Netscape and Microsoft have been left to battle one another for the title of de facto webcasting standard. Neither side has blinked yet, and now both Communicator 4.0 and Explorer 4.0 offer webcasting features built into the browsers themselves, even though these features aren't compatible with each other.

Internet Explorer's webcasting basics

Microsoft loves to create new jargon. They probably have a department for it. With Internet Explorer, you'll be introduced to Active Channels, the Microsoft term for webcasting. Active Channels take advantage of some pretty cool new technology that, in effect, can turn even the most mundane of web sites into a web channel. In fact, you can subscribe to both channels and web sites in Internet Explorer 4.0, simply by using the Subscribe feature.

I know it sounds a bit odd to subscribe to both channels and web sites, but trust me, it works pretty well. Active Channels nearly always come with an identifying icon, so picking them out is usually pretty easy. But you're definitely not beholden to the Active Channels. If you visit a site and decide "Hey, I'd like to have that site come to me every day," you can subscribe to that page. (The Subscription Wizard is shown in Figure 1-6.) Whenever you fire up the browser after that, it goes directly to that site and brings back the updated content.

Now that's simple! So simple, in fact, that I think I can just pack up and go home and forget about all this web channel stuff...Uh...not quite. It turns out there's a new language you'll need to learn, and oh yeah, did I mention the part about having to time code everything you create so that Explorer knows to bring it down to the user's PC. No? Hmm...well, I'll come back to that in Chapter 5.

Okay, so maybe webcasting isn't that simple after all. In trying to make the webcasting architecture as open as possible, Microsoft made it a little too open and has made the use of some fairly common web-publishing conventions more complicated. Does that particular problem mean that you should skip the technology entirely? Absolutely not. It does mean, however, that using Microsoft isn't as easy as the company would like you to believe.

Don't forget that this book's CD has a copy of Internet Explorer 4.0 for you.

Netcaster, Netscape's built-in web channel viewer

Netcaster isn't all that different from the webcasting features in Internet Explorer 4.0. You're still pushing content to the user. The end-user still subscribes to a channel and then specifies when to download the information. The difference between the two tools boils down to implementation. Netcaster uses proprietary JavaScript to create an entirely different look and feel than you find in Explorer 4.0.

If Internet Explorer was going for the Hyundai approach, Netcaster is more like a Cadillac. Netcaster is big, cushy, and filled with lots of web-channel features right in the middle of your web browser. Dubbed a "Webtop" by the marketing folks at Netscape (the Channel Properties dialogue box is shown in Figure 1-7), Netcaster runs in the background on your desktop and downloads content while you work on other things. On closer inspection, you find that Netcaster feels much like PointCast in that content is constantly coming at you and appearing on a full desktop.

The downside to Netcaster is that's it's a boatload of JavaScript. Everything from the interface design to the delivery of content, right down to the channel options, utilizes JavaScript. JavaScript is great, don't get me wrong, but when delivered en masse like this, it can bring an entire PC to a halt over time, and that's exactly what Netcaster does.

In addition to its Netcaster feature, Netscape has also partnered with Marimba to build the Castanet Tuner into Communicator 4.0. The Tuner can run both as part of Communicator 4.0 or as a stand-alone application. Sure, this feature amounts to a glorified plug-in, but this relationship shows the commitment of both companies to developing a set of standards for webcasting based around Java and JavaScript.

Get Ready to Webcast!

All right -- I'm done with Chapter 1. How about you? Now, before you run off to that cocktail party and start musing about the ways of the webcaster, here are some key tips to keep in mind:

  • Webcasting is all about pushing content from the Internet to the end-user.
  • Web channels come in lots of shapes and sizes, and as a developer, choosing the right size channel for your purposes is very important.
  • Netscape and Microsoft don't like each other. More important, however, they don't like sharing webcasting standards.

Beyond the hype, some valuable reasons exist for delivering content directly to users, which I explore in depth in Chapter 3. As a developer, however, you need to keep in mind the following points as you begin to look at developing web channels:

  • You probably want to develop web channels geared toward people who have a web browser first, because such a strategy increases your audience size and because, generally, developing for the browsers is easier. That said, you're certain to wind up making some compromises in quality and experience, but in the end, such flexibility is sure to prove worth the effort.
  • As you get more experienced, you can branch out into the webcasting tools that don't involve a web browser. These tools are more flexible than their browser-based relatives but usually have a greater ramp-up time because the development environment is new.

Web channels are not a fad. It's a better way to deliver targeted information to your customers, your friends, and the millions of people you don't know on the Internet. Now that you've got an overview (providing you've read through this entire chapter), you can start getting down to the business of building channels!

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