Next wave: Push to the desktop

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Just as online marketers get comfortable reaching customers via the Web, a new wave of "push" technologies has emerged that could turn Internet marketing on its head.

These new technologies promise to put an end to aimless Web surfing. Rather than waste time browsing the vast reaches of the Internet, users will have content and working applications delivered right to their desktop.

As always, new technologies bring with them new metaphors. Forget about surfing or browsing; instead, with push technologies, users will "tune" into "channels" and content will be "pushed" to them to wait on their hard drive until they need it.

The emergence of a rash of push start-up companies and stated plans by Netscape and Microsoft to equip new browsers with push capabilities has elevated push from Web curiosity to "The Next Big Thing."

Let's be clear: The push concept is not a new one. E-mail newsletters, which have become standard fare on most Web sites, are a simple but powerful form of push technology.

Meanwhile, the very successful PointCast Network, which pushes content and advertising to millions of PCs, is almost a year old. But PointCast is more like a closed, proprietary online service (like America Online) than the current wave of push players, which let any content provider run their own private push network.

The pioneers of push include:

  • BackWeb Technologies, whose BackWeb Channel server and client enables the delivery of any sort of content, including HTML pages, audio or video files and Java applets. BackWeb also includes a notification system that pops up windows on a user's desktop when new content arrives.

  • InterMind Corp., whose Communicator is a sophisticated combination of intelligent agent and push client. The Communicator client software automatically searches selected sites for new information on specific, pre-selected topics.

  • Marimba, a start-up begun by four former Java team members from Sun Microsystems, whose CastaNet tuner delivers Java-based content. Marimba's technology solves many of the performance problems with Java and moves push technology from mere information to full-blown applications.

    While each of these start-ups offers good software, they lack a large enough user base to encourage content providers to use their software. And they each force users to download and install new software and adopt new behaviors.

    What's needed is the same thing that drove the Web browser market: millions of end-users all working with the same easy-to-use client software. Hoping to drive push technologies to that level are Web leaders Netscape and Microsoft, both of whom will unveil integrated push technologies early next year in their 4.0 browsers.

    Microsoft is trumpeting its Active Desktop, which will bring active, push content to Windows 95 and the Internet Explorer browser. Netscape, meanwhile, recently outlined Constellation, which will add push content to its new Communicator browser, in part through partnerships with PointCast and Marimba.

    Will end-users readily abandon the Web browser for the channel tuner? Don't count on it. The Web is a powerful pull.

    The more likely scenario is that standardized push capabilities will be built into the next-generation of Web browsers, with Web users slowly becoming more comfortable receiving rather than chasing Internet content.

    The best bet for marketers is to begin playing with push technologies now. Don't bet the bank on start-ups like Intermind or BackWeb, but don't be afraid to test the waters either.

    Richard Karpinski is editor-at-large for NetGuide Magazine and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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