It's high time the Stock Exchange provided up-to-date information on the Internet. David Bowen reports
One of the best business stories of the month concerned the battle between two small companies, Electronic Share Information and ShareLink, and the London Stock Exchange. ESI/ShareLink wanted to provide real time share price information on the Internet: anyone with access to the World Wide Web would be able to see what price a share was trading at, then buy or sell through ShareLink's broking operation.

The aim was to create extra liquidity for smaller companies that might not attract the attention of the big boys in the City - and the stock exchange seemed to agree. Though it had previously allowed its prices to go online after midnight on the trading day, it said it was happy to move to real time. A pilot scheme ran for several months, picking up 3,500 users without advertising.

Then, in late August, the stock exchange said it would stop providing live prices. ESI/ Sharelink felt they could still offer regularly updated prices, and decided to launch on 8 September. On 6 September, another letter arrived from the exchange, saying no pricing at all could be given over the Net. The two companies complained publicly, and the stock exchange then said that because they had broken a confidentiality agreement, all co-operation would cease. The plug was pulled on 11 September and the two sides have since been alternately sniping at each other and negotiating.

Not that this will give London any great lead. Stock exchanges around the world have offered online quotes for some time - most with a delay, but some real time. Subscribers to CompuServe can see French blue-chip share prices updated several times an hour. Amsterdam delays its prices by only 15 minutes. London makes you wait until after midnight, and the Germans until 2pm the next day. To get this data, click on the finance symbol in the CompuServe Information Manager, then select Global Quotes.

The Internet has a vast range of stock market services, some provided by the Stock Exchange, others by private companies. London is shown up by the Madrid exchange, (http://www.bolsamadrid.es/), which provides its blue-chip prices with a 15-minute delay. Singapore also provides a real time (CHK) data service http://snoopy.asia1. com.sg/realstk/indices.html).

But most of the action is in the US, where it is possible to buy and sell shares over the Internet. The services on offer are bewildering - some provide real time prices, others delayed. InterQuote provides a menu of Internet-based stock market services - users can choose between real time, 15-minute delayed and end-of-day information on stocks, options, indices, funds and futures from most US and Canadian exchanges. Prices range from $69.95 a month to as low as $45 a year depending on the immediacy and number you want to see per day, while a limited "taster" package can be used for free. See them all at http://www.interquote.com/. Similar services are provided by Money Quick Quotes (http://www.pathfinder.com/money/quote/qc?symbols=ibm) and Lombard (http: //www.lombard.com/PACenter/index.html).

One of the most sophisticated set of Web pages is PAWWS (http://pawws. com/). It is designed to help you handle a portfolio, and lets you buy and sell shares online. Three stockbrokers handle your transactions - in each case security is provided by the encryption system built into the latest Netscape Web browsers.

It is worth remembering that it is currently illegal to export this encryption technology from the US, so the legal position of someone in Britain using it to buy shares in the States would be intriguing. This is an example of the law failing to keep up with technological change - technology will inevitably win, as the London Stock Exchange will one day have to admit.

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