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Home / Special Report / Futurists are playing push
and pull with the Web

Futurists are playing push
and pull with the Web

The Web is big, and it is getting bigger. Hundreds of thousands of public Web sites are at your fingertips.
But aside from professional surfers–in companies like Yahoo! Inc.–who really has time to punch in endless URLs in the hopes that something interesting will appear on the screen?
The answer, say some, is a new digital development called push technology. The idea of push–and it is a concept, not a single device–is that rather than clicking your way through the Web using browsers and search engines, information will be “pushed” directly to you.
PointCast Inc. became the pioneer of push when it released its PointCast Network last May. Since then, a slew of other forms of push technology have emerged. But experts say the technohype that push has created is not because of the products that are on the shelf today, but because of what this technology will mean for the future.
PointCast Network is one of the simpler forms of push technology. Once downloaded free from the company’s Web site at www.pointcast.com, the technology lets the user receive a continuous flow of customized information: the latest sports scores, stock prices, news or Web site updates.
This is how it works on your desktop at home:
After supplying marketing-friendly information such as your age and sex, you select from PointCast’s data base the kind of information you want to receive and when you want to receive it. Your profile is then stored in the PointCast data base. Meanwhile, the server is constantly retrieving information from its sources on the Web. Every time you run PointCast and connect to the Net, it automatically delivers an updated version of the information you selected.
If you stay online, whenever there is new information–say your stock price just took a nosedive–PointCast will automatically let you know on the screen. As long as you are connected, you do not have to click on the “refresh” or “update” button to receive current information.
While offline, PointCast acts as a screen-saver. When your computer is idle, it shows its face on the screen and asks whether you need an update of information.
Sounds relatively simple and familiar? “The whole concept (of push) has been around for a while. E-mail is push technology,” says Stephen Larson, president of Structured Technologies Inc. and Our- Hometown Inc.
However, it is the “unsolicited nature” of the most recent push hybrids that make them different, he adds.
Experts explain push as really being an automatic pull. The user still initiates the flow of information, but now she gets more back for less effort. In other words, you automatically receive information you otherwise did not know you needed.
Even though its supporters cheer push as being a seamless method of communication, it is not without caveats. PointCast network takes up a significant amount of disk space–some 24 megabytes–on your hard drive. As a memory hog, it also can slow down other applications, such as word processors or spreadsheets, that are in use.
The fact that information is pushed–potentially without the user’s consent or her knowledge of what is actually being delivered–raises a number of questions regarding privacy and usefulness. After all, how much information can a person realistically consume?
Businesses with large internal networks are in the position to reap the biggest gains from early push technology. They have larger data pipes and a constant Internet connection, which allows for almost continuous updates. Push lets networks do what they are supposed to do: enable everyone to receive the same information instantly. Not only can push deliver outside news–and can the company server send its latest quarterly reports, memos and forms–but, potentially, it can automatically upgrade an employee’s software as well.
But not all the kinks have been worked out yet. Xerox Corp. and other companies have banned employees from using PointCast because it creates too much traffic within their networks.
“It’s too bandwidth-hungry,” says Michael Axelrod, a Webmaster at Xerox. Hundreds or thousands of unregulated push signals going through the corporate security firewall–the one opening to the outside–is “a big clog in your pipe,” he says.
As a solution to network congestion, push companies are creating servers that allow companies to send and receive only a single stream of data from outside their network. Once inside the company, the information is then distributed internally. However, this solution still creates large amounts of traffic within the company, says Axelrod. At Xerox, a push server is still in the testing stage.
But the real brass ring, says Axelrod and almost every other push watcher, is not developing push technology into something new. Instead the goal is to try to make it look more like something old: television. In its more complex forms, push technology is known as Webcasting–an Internet form of broadcasting that sends one digital signal for any user to receive.
For example, Marimba Inc.’s Castanet Tuner–free from www.marimba.com– allows users to receive different Castanet “channels” of information. However, the term “channel” does not mean that imaginary pipes will flow through to desktops. What Castanet Tuner provides is not only a way to receive Web page contents and updates similar to that of PointCast, but also the ability to transmit whole software applications.
Castanet “adds a whole new dimension,” says Axelrod, because it enables users to download a software application once. Then, whenever there are changes in the software’s program code, it can be upgraded automatically from the Internet, without having to reload a whole new program.
Want another example of an advanced version of push technology? Axelrod says that Xerox is in the midst of creating a live-video intranet. The goal is to bring videoconferencing to individual computer desktops throughout Xerox’s worldwide intranet. The only barrier, Axelrod says, is configuring existing networks to allow continuous frames of video–i.e., information–to be pushed to individual desktops.
“We’ve proven we can put anything we want over the wire,” says Stephen Jacobs, an assistant professor of information technology at Rochester Institute of Technology. The problem, says Jacobs, is that “we can’t transmit enough data through the wire fast enough. There’s not enough room in the pipe.”
And so the race to enlarge that pipe has already started, he says.
Technology is trying to create telephone lines with larger bandwidths, cable modems with faster speeds, and digital TV that will accept broadcasting and Webcasting. Jacobs says he does not know which type of medium will prevail, or whether there will necessarily be one solution to solve the problem of inadequate space.
But he will make this prediction: “When you get down to it, in less than 10 years there’s not going to be a whole lot of difference between (the) TV and (the) computer.”
He is not the only one who has visions of a future that, for many people, seems like the script for a sci-fi movie. The editors of Wired magazine recently featured push technology and told readers to say goodbye to their browsers and make way for a “new networked media” that can follow them anywhere.
As everything becomes wired, the magazine said, information will be able to travel through cell phones, pagers, your car windshield or your watch with a small digital screen. Information will be broadcast using push–and pull–techniques, creating, among other things, an advertiser’s targeted-marketing dream.
In the not-so-distant future, both Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. are incorporating push technology into their newest browsers, to be released this year.

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