Web Informant #232, 12 January 2001:
Reading the news on the go

http://www.strom.com/awards/232.html

Are you in the know about AvantGo? A growing number of media pros are, and it's looking like this will be the big year for this new brand of software that lets you read Internet content anytime, anywhere. And its growing success hints at where tech publishing is headed as readers become more time-crunched than ever.

AvantGo isn't for everyone, and does require some technical savvy to maintain. But the software, which runs on Palm Pilots and various Windows CE handhelds, does have its supporters. It works by setting up a series of web-based information provider "channels" on your handheld PDA, so that you can read headlines and short blurbs of stories when you are disconnected from the Net. You'll want to run it on the more recent devices that have as much RAM as you can afford, though.

The theory behind this is simple, but has some pretty complex technology. Remember offline web browsing? Now, take that ability but only on very condensed bits and pieces of web pages. That's what AvantGo is selling. Actually, they aren't selling anything: you can download the software for free. You need to set up your Palm or CE to synchronize properly with a PC that has an Internet connection.

The AvantGo web site does a very nice job of walking you through the process, and it took me about 30 minutes to get everything working. Most of the time was spent trying to the find the various channels I was interested in receiving: AvantGo has done a very poor job of organizing them, although you can search on keywords (such as Internet or computing or technology) that will locate most of the sites of interest.

There is a pretty good selection of hi-tech news channels, including CNet, ZDnet, the New York Times, San Jose Mercury and Wall Street Journal, InfoWorld to Go, and the Industry Standard, among others. I tried it out myself with an HP CE computer. (In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I am neither a fan of CE or Palm devices and don't normally carry either one around with me.) It takes a while to download all this information to your palm-top, but if you aren't in a rush you can then examine the stuff on the commuter train or whenever you have a free moment.

Another advantage of AvantGo is that it also works with various handheld wireless modems, so you can avoid the extra step of synchronizing your handheld with your PC.

When I spoke to many media mavens who were early adopters of the technology, I found a general trend toward using an array of various technologies to stay informed. You need to use more than one method to stay up to date on current events, as well as be able to delve into the details. Email is still the best technology for delivering quick updates. I'd rather read the various email alerts from these publishers on my ordinary desktop (or collect them on a laptop, if I had one), than on a Palm or CE-sized unit. And the web is still the best mechanism to dig in and wander around to collect lots of information. The AvantGo application sits squarely in between.

Given that the developer side isn't too complex, what about the user perspective? With my own tests of the application I had a few problems, sometimes fatal: A few times the information didn't download properly, for whatever reason. One channel, the ZDNN Comdex site, is completely down, should you wish to relive those glorious Vegas moments last month. Others are more annoying: ZDnet's pages are so complex that they take a painfully long time to appear on my CE screen. The Times inserts an empty page at the beginning of its channel, making it one more pen tap away from the real data. CNet calls its stuff the Palm version, forgetting that other devices can work with the AvantGo software.

When I began doing the research for this article, I was pretty down on AvantGo. After all, who really wants to read gobs of information on a tiny screen? There is a lot of scrolling going on to get through even the shortest news summary, and while my HP CE machine's screen is bigger than the Palm, it still isn't big enough for me to be comfortable sitting in front of it for extended reading. Playing Solitaire, yes. Reading text, no. But I was missing the point, and it took interviewing several AvantGo advocates before I caught the trend. AvantGo doesn't replace reading the entire trade rag, or even paging through it - it is more a complement to these other information sources. And once you get used to its quirks, it can work quite nicely.

Expect to see more in this area, especially from the traditional publishers as advertisers begin to understand this medium and as the number of handheld users continues to grow. And there are several vendors who are employing their own technology that syncs handhelds with Internet-based services, including YadaYada.com and AdAlive.com.

This article first appeared in Sam Whitmore's MediaSurvey.com, and is reprinted with permission.

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David Strom
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