Distributed Disaster

PointCast blazed a trail, but never made it to the other side

It was an idea that appeared way ahead of its time: nomadic media before nomadic media was even possible, let alone cool.

PointCast's 1996 introduction of push technology, the first product to deliver personalized Web content to consumers' PCs, put the start-up directly in the line of sight of major media players like Rupert Murdoch. It made companies like Yahoo nervous. It seemed possible that push technology would make Web browsers unnecessary.

PointCast ran with the idea that media should go out to meet consumers where they are, with content they want. It foreshadowed innovations such as RSS feeds, highly personalized home pages, widgets and social networks. It quickly attracted more than 1 million subscribers, blue-ribbon advertisers and tens of millions in capital.

And it was doomed.

In the mid-'90s, consumers and offices didn't have enough bandwidth to accommodate PointCast, and PointCast didn't have enough savvy to keep its product from overwhelming consumers, pushing a stream of headlines and ads that consumers couldn't actually control. At a time when the Web was becoming more standardized, PointCast was deeply invested in a proprietary infrastructure.

Despite heavy interest, PointCast couldn't close a single major deal. It ran through its cash, backed down from an IPO, and eventually lost the interest of Microsoft, which had considered buying the company in a deal with the Baby Bells. That deal, intended to create a high-speed broadband portal so the phone companies could compete with cable, included a $100 million purchase price.

Instead, the company was sold in 1999 for $7 million. The technology lived on, but PointCast's lasting achievement was to change the way Web developers and consumers thought about media - as something mobile, something personal.

Eve Phillips remembers downloading and using PointCast as a summer intern at Netscape in 1996. She is now the founder and CEO of Chirp Interactive, a 2-year-old start-up whose flagship product, Chirpscreen, owes much to PointCast. She even consulted with former PointCast executives before launching Chirpscreen.

"Fundamentally, [PointCast] was a product that really had that 'wow' value," Phillips says. "It's one of the first times your computer really started looking like a television, and there was just a user experience in that that really got people's attention. That's something that we really tried to emulate."

While some critics have derided PointCast for expecting to make money off screen-saver ads, Phillips points to today's proliferating screens in coffee shops, gas stations and elevators, and the emergence of other nomadic media, all subtle overtures for consumers' attention.

"Things like TiVo and Apple TV are making it very easy to turn your TV into this ambient display device," Phillips says. "There's a lot of value in that ambient attention."
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