Sree's Stories

The World Wide Wait: Don't Get Mad, Get Off

Monday, July 7, 1997

By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Call it the World Wide Wait.

That is what Web surfers call the excruciating delay that many home computer users experience when they try to download graphics and photos from multimedia Web sites.

And if those users go on line via an Internet service provider that charges by the hour, they also have high bills.

Mark Pincus and Sunil Paul of Freeloader Inc. think they have a solution: go off line.

"Our service allows users to go from 'click and wait' to 'click and see,' thus giving them back something they can't afford to lose: time," said Mr. Pincus, 30, the president and chief executive of Freeloader.

Someone with Internet access can direct Freeloader's software to retrieve pages from specific sites and automatically download those pages onto the user's hard drive. Once on a hard drive, the pages come up quicker, without having to be transferred over a slow telephone modem.

(The reason for the faster access from a hard drive is that its bandwidth, or data carrying capacity, is millions of bits a second, while a modem's bandwidth is thousands of bits a second).

At any point, a user can still easily go back on line.

Freeloader, which is based in Washington, is releasing version 2.0 of its software today.

Mr. Paul, 31, the company's chairman, came up with the idea for a so-called Web scraper when he was a product manager at America Online. "I wanted to fulfill this off-line dream because I think this is the way the mass of people are going to interact with the Web," he said. "Right now, it is too slow and complicated for most users."

Mr. Paul teamed up a year ago with Mr. Pincus, who has a venture- capital background and previously worked at Tele-Communications Inc. to create the "VCR and TV Guide for the Internet."

Their service was started on May 1 and was purchased for $38 million in July by Individual Inc., a provider of business news based in Burlington, Mass. It now has 85,000 registered users.

Freeloader is now just one of several companies trying to persuade the on-line world to go off line. Most are software companies like Webex, Netriever and Surfbot, which sell software that does the off-line Web surfing.

Freeloader, on the other hand, depends on advertising on its pages to make money -- its software can be downloaded free from its site.

Bruce Judson, general manager of Time Inc. New Media, who oversees the business side of Pathfinder, the company's Web site, is enthusiastic about off-line products. "When you link special kinds of content with off-line technologies," he said, "you can create compelling consumer experiences and high-value applications."

Pathfinder signed on Friday to be a new "channel" on Freeloader.

The limited bandwidth available now on the Internet is an especially acute problem for such content providers as music companies that offer video and audio.

"On the information superhighway, many corporations own sports cars -- souped-up connections to the Internet -- while most consumers own bicycles -- connections through home dial-up modems," said Mark Wachen, director of new technology at Sony Music Entertainment. "Off line is a way for the bicycles to get a sports car experience, to get over the bandwidth barrier." Mr. Wachen is working with Freeloader to promote "home delivery" of Sony music multimedia content.

Mr. Pincus said his cable experience gave him an insight into how users want to use the Internet. "When people first get cable, they are excited about all the channels and spend the first month channel surfing," he said. "Then they discover that there are only a few channels they keep going back to. We believe the same thing happens to users of the Web. The first few times, they spend 99 percent of their time surfing. After a couple of months, they find what they like and spend only 30 percent of their time randomly surfing."

That's where Freeloader and its competitors come in. More and more, these companies talk of "channels" and the television analogy. In fact, one New York-based service, Ifusioncom, which is to introduce its test service in November, has a look and feel very much like a cable or satellite television's channel guide. Ifusioncom's founder, Michael Recanati, said the television model made sense in relation to the Internet because "we can give users a familiar environment." These off-line companies also talk about the importance of "broadcasting," having the information sent out to the user, rather than having the user come looking for it.

The leader in Internet broadcasting is Pointcast Inc, a company based in Cupertino, Calif. Its Pointcast Network is the primary screensaver on thousands of desktops across the United States. But it offers much more than just a screensaver: it brings constantly updated news and personalized information to computers from content providers like Reuters and Accu Weather. Since it was started in February, Pointcast has picked up more than 1.4 million registered users.

Its software can also be downloaded free from its site.

But while the off-line services are often compared with Pointcast, the company is quick to distance itself from them.

"We are a broadcast network over the Internet," said Andreas Guralas, director of product management at Pointcast. "Freeloader is a Web scraper that has all the problems that downloading sites brings. We do not have the problems they have. No delays because of Web traffic, and we are not dependent on the sites for information."

Indeed, Freeloader is not without its drawbacks. Since the pages have been downloaded anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours before users read them, there is a good chance some of the information, especially news, is out of date. Also, there are many new users for whom the surfing experience itself makes the wait for graphics tolerable.

Still, Mr. Wachen of Sony Music believes computer users will want off-line services "for the same reason people choose home delivery of magazines instead of trudging out to the newsstand."

Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications, an interactive research company in Bethesda, Md., sees considerable advertiser interest in off-line products. "Off line," he said, "helps a user keep track of what he'd like to keep track of, and keeps him returning to those sites, just the way an advertiser would want."