Tedious, time-consuming and annoying. Those are just some of the adjectives users came up with when asked to describe using the Internet to find information. While most people appreciate the value of the Internet as a huge information resource, many are also suffering from information overload, and find the Internet too big and unwieldy to be a handy tool. The result is that some users spend ages completing simple tasks online, while others just switch off and only use the Net when forced to.
If employees are allowed to ignore the Internet simply because they don't like using the technology they may be in danger of missing out. Focussed intently on their own tasks they may be unaware of, or find out too late about, developments in the outside world that could have a profound effect on their work.
Attempts to address this imbalance between information overload and information lack have led to what many software companies are touting as the next big wave of the Internet: push technologies.
Push technologies go by several different names. Some call them broadcast, some narrowcast, some refer to them as streaming, others channelling.
But the central concept is simple: instead of forcing users to trawl the Internet for the information they want, push technology brings information to the desktop. They deliver the data in real time, putting it on your desktop while you work. The technology is, in the words of a recent Forrester report on personal broadcast networks, about delivering "targeted snippets of information instead of the full fire hose".
"Push" is about to become big business. US research firm the Yankee Group predicts push technology, worth about $10 million in annual sales today, will be a $5.7 billion business by the year 2000. And the end result?
"Three years from now the Web is dead," according to Yankee Group analyst Greg Wester.
That's rather difficult to believe. Searching the Web will still have a place in corporate Internet usage for the same reasons it always has.
It's a huge and immensely useful resource, enabling users to browse through information by visiting the relevant Web site. That is not going to go away. What is more likely to happen is that corporate Internet use will become more efficient as companies realise the value of combining the pull approach to information gathering (ie using the Web) with the emerging push paradigm.
Push technology is a good way to increase productivity. "30% of Internet access at work is non-business-related," observed Peter Kear, sales and marketing director at IS Solutions.
"With a combination of firewalls, scanners and push marketing, you could cut down unauthorised traffic."
Push technology also offers unique opportunities to Internet content publishers, such as newspapers and magazines, as it means they can get out and reach users, rather than relying on them stumbling across their sites on the Web.
If it offers better ways of reaching readers, imagine the effect it could have for advertisers. Not only does it represent a new medium to reach the public, it also allows the advertiser to be more focussed in their approach, targeting audiences more closely and tailoring their message to individual needs - what some have refered to as "narrowcasting" rather than broadcasting their wares.
"The market for push advertising is still embryonic, but it has plenty of scope for development," said Peter Ford, regional sales manager for northern Europe at FTP Software. "Some organisations naively believe that if you have a Web site, you have entered the global market. But you can't expect huge numbers of hits unless enough other sites flag yours. With broadcast technologies, advertisers are offered much more structure in their use of the Web to spread their message."
As well as providing advantages for advertisers, the technology could improve the lives of the audience, added Kear. "Junk mail is a big problem for many users, but needn't be with push," he commented. "I want to stop drivel being sent to me. With push, you could just set up a one-to-one marketing session and get rid of the junk."
It's not just information that can be pushed, either. Software upgrades and Java applets are also prime targets for this type of service. If users can automatically upgraded software from the Internet, IT managers will be wringing their hands with glee at the reduction in maintenance.
Cost of ownership is a huge issue and clever firms tap into that. Marimba, for example has struck a deal with Corel to deliver the forthcoming Corel Office for Java software via its Castanet channel technology. This, the companies claim, will allow completely transparent installation and updates of the corporate user's desktop programs for the first time. US firm BackWeb Technologies also has a deal with McAfee to push out updates to the latter's anti-virus software customers.
PointCast pioneered the push paradigm last year with its streaming news service downloaded to the user's desktop in the form of a screen saver.
PointCast is now one of the older systems on the market. Other startups are already flourishing. Marimba is making great progress in the corporate arena, with several headline deals. BackWeb has reputedly received over $13 million in venture capital.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has set up Starwave to deliver a TV service to the desktop, due to roll out in the first quarter of this year. There are a rash of other companies: Diffusion, IFusion, Intermind, and more.
Even the venerable After Dark screensaver has assumed a new lease of life as a PointCast-like content-streaming service.
Most of these companies team up with a content provider to deliver personalised content, usually news, to the desktop. PointCast, for example, takes Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal and The Weather Channel. Another common function is to alert users to changes in Web sites in which they've expressed an interest. Intranet specialists work on the same principle, but take their content from internal corporate databases instead.
But this explosion in activity is not expected to last. Forrester analyst John Robb predicts the market will settle down to Microsoft and one other in 1998. For the rest, he advises, the best idea is to cut a deal with Microsoft soon.
Microsoft is certainly showing aggression in the push arena. "Broadcast technology is really going to be very important in 1997," declared Jeremy Gittens, Internet platforms product manager at Microsoft UK. "We aim to give companies full control so they can manage their employees' use of the Internet."
The cornerstone in Microsoft's push strategy is what the company is terming the Active Platform. A combination of NT and the Active Desktop, hitting the market later this year as part of Internet Explorer 4.0, this will enable servers to push data out in real time and govern the way in which data is streamed to the end-user's desktop.
Although Forrester predicts Microsoft will use MSN and MSNBC as part of its push strategy, the company has vigorously denied any such intention. It's not a content issue, according to Microsoft. But Netscape has attacked that suggestion.
"My comment to content providers working with Microsoft is that they're just using you until they get their own content sorted out," says Sam Sethi, product manager at Netscape UK. Netscape, by contrast, "is not going to be a content provider of any sort," he affirmed.
Netscape's forthcoming Constellation product, scheduled for release in the third quarter of 1997, will carry the ability to stream channels of information into the browser. The company has a deal with Marimba for this service, using its Java-based Castanet software. Through its Inbox Direct service, Netscape already has a content deal worked out with the Financial Times.
The company is also to release a white paper on channel streaming, written by co-founder Marc Andreessen in a few weeks.
"Netscape is very committed to this idea, and we're going all out for it," said Sethi. "We're clearly ahead of Lotus and we're also ahead of Microsoft. It will be very interesting to see who comes to market first."
Wherever Microsoft and Netscape are, Lotus is never far behind. Sure enough, the company is gunning for the push market, and predictably asserts that it's better placed than either of its rivals to succeed because of its background in groupware and the delivery of content from databases to the desktop. "This is an area where none of our competitors really has the back-end stuff," says Victor Aberdeen, Domino product manager at Lotus UK.
Peter Kear of IS Solutions agrees: "This could be good for Lotus, because it needs an extra twist to its story, and now it's got it."
At Lotusphere in January, Lotus announced partnerships with 11 broadcast technology companies for its Domino.Broadcast product. These include BackWeb, Marimba, PointCast, Diffusion and Wayfarer.
The first fruits of these agreements are expected within months.
"It enables us to deliver information to machines rather than the user having to go and find it," explains Lotus' Aberdeen. One of the facilities the Domino.Broadcast service enables is the use of channels to the desktop. Aberdeen points out that a large company with a great deal of internal activity could have a sales channel, an HR channel, a news channel and so on.
With these three big players battling for market share, it looks as if the push sector is in for a big boost this year. It may be difficult for corporate users to sort out the cannonballs from the smoke for some time yet, though.
"I think 1997 will be the year when you'll see more confusion in terms of this push-and-pull model," Daniel Rimer, Internet analyst at US firm Hambrecht and Quist, told the US news service Cnet. "It won't become clear how they provide various aspects of pushing and pulling capabilities.
All of those buzzwords will filter out into one platform in 1998."
But if the concept works, and users get the information they need downloaded straight to their desktops without any effort on their part, it could put a stop to that tedious, time-consuming and annoying business of trawling the Internet, if that happens, we might just start to miss it.
Push technology: who's in bed with who?
Lotus has deals with
Microsoft has deals with
Netscape has deals with
Corporate view: push and the intranet.
The push paradigm doesn't only apply to the Internet. Large companies with intranets can also avail themselves of the technology to make more efficient use of internal data.
In January, Wayfarer launched its Incisa software allowing companies to broadcast to their employees over intranets. Broadcasts consist of information updates viewed as either screen savers or small windows on the desktop, containing hotlinks to Web pages on the Internet or intranet.
SoftQuad's new product HIP has a similar idea. "It's the same as push technology, but over an intranet," said the company's UK marketing manager Sandi Castle. Users are provided with constantly updated information over the intranet, and can be automatically alerted if a page of interest to them has been changed. "It's about bringing the relevant information to the user, not making them go out and look for it," said Castle.
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