Sit Back and Let the Internet Work For You

A recent study by the market research firm Jupiter Communications in New York claims that the number of online households in the world will jump from 23.4 million in 1996 to 66.6 million in 2000.

That will only be good news if, by then, people have found the elusive Holy Grail of the Internet: relevance. There is no doubt that every person could gain something from using the Internet. The problem, however, is not only finding what you are looking for but knowing enough about what is out there to decide what you want.

One of the first trends on the Internet in favor of relevance was localized content: information about an area's restaurants, events and weather. But now -- coming directly to your e-mail -- is customized information. That means you don't need to search the Internet. What some call an "intelligent agent" and others simply refer to as customized Internet service, is out there, searching for you.

Some of these magic elves, such as PointCast Network (http://www.pointcast.com) and Stanford Netnews (http://woodstock.stanford.edu:2000/) are free and others, like Quote.com (http://www.quote.com) let users try it for a month without paying. Many offer wire reports; others offer news groups, online publications and company profiles. They can be programmed to e-mail you during the day when something important happens in your area of interest. Say GTE Corp. decides to buy PSInet, and you avidly follow telecom and Internet companies. You'd be among the first in your office to know. Quote.com gives current stock prices, as well as news about public companies you are following.

The services are so helpful that most have started charging. The San Jose Mercury News runs NewsHound (http://www.sjmercury.com/hound.htm), which costs $4.95 per month to follow five companies through assorted databases such as Associated Press and Reuters.

Farcast (http://www.farcast.com) charges $9.95 a month or $109 annually. And IBM offers InfoSage (http://www.infosage.ibm.com) for $24.95 a month.

Do these reasonably priced services mean the end of surfing? Hopefully. Such directed information does have some caveats: It necessarily collects personal information that may cause privacy concerns, and it competes against traditional journalism. Why read a whole sports article if you just want to know the score? However, such competition may light the proverbial fire under print journalists, resulting in better and even more relevant stories.


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