Let's get pushy


I have written before about how much I hate off-line web browsing, but some technologies that I saw this week got me thinking again. Bring up that Twilight Zone intro, please.

Imagine you are in a place where your can buy oodles of disk space for peanuts. Imagine that most of that space is taken up with your browser's cache. Now imagine a way to move tons of web pages down to your machine on a regular basis. When the time came to surf around, your pages would already be in this honker of a cache. Imagine a way to predict with some success what you want to look at ahead of time, so you wouldn't have to fetch anything else from the Internet as you browsed your way around. Now imagine that this is all tied up inside a TV, so that you can bring it inside people's living rooms and dens.

That is the Microsoft (yes, really!) vision of push technology. Before I get to how this works, let's go to the quote of the week:

"New Yorkers aren't stupid," said Jared Lebow, a Transit Authority spokesman. "If people can see their commute is made easier, we think they'll act in their best self-interest." That was from a NY Times article last week talking about how the TA plans to use their staff on the subway platforms to prevent pushy people from entering subway cars. The idea is to wait until the folks inside the car can all exit. From all reports this week, the plan, called "Step aside and speed your ride," seems to be working, miracle of miracles. Note that the TA platform police operate in the inverse of their Tokyo counterparts, who try to pack more bodies into the cars.

Pushy people on NY subways are, at least for me, an accepted lifeform. But pushy technologies are another matter. Indeed, there is little agreement on what constitutes push and what doesn't, although it seems as if every vendor these days is trying to characterize their stuff as some form of push. You can check this page on my site with lots o' links to the players and a few worthy articles.

The Wired cover piece on push set me off. Poorly edited and meandering, the piece promises lots and delivers little, which is sort of the right metaphor for the entire push industry right now. It presents a grand vision of the future but doesn't understand how we are going to get there.

So here are my thoughts. Just as the differences between the Tokyo and NY subway systems (well, I won't even get into all of them!) when it comes to pushing people on to the cars, there are different push technology markets. Four to be precise, each with its own needs, possible technologies, and users:

  1. Enhanced email notification. Here you have vendors such as Mercury Mail that send you the latest sports or news to your inbox on a regular basis. Some of this is actual content delivery, but the most important piece is the message telling you something about the state of the world has changed. Email will have the widest appeal and use of any push market, because everyone now uses email and understands it, even trade press editors and PR people. And email provides the best gratification for publishers and readers alike.
  2. Managing multiple delivery paths. You have an audience that likes to get its electronic content in various ways: some like email, some like fax, and even a few hardy souls like to bookmark web pages. You want a system to manage this, and something like Diffusion's IntraExpress might be the way to do so. (They have been promising me their software, and I'll let you know when I get it working.)
  3. Simplified navigation/notification of changes to complex web sites. This is the market where a corporation puts up a web site with oodles of stuff but no one takes the time to read any of it, because they can't or won't navigate. Something like Intermind's stuff is good here. This is the area that has received the most misunderstanding and press coverage, but the word most critical to this market is "simplified." Corporate types building intranets aren't going to mess around with stuff that requires them to maintain lots of gear and protocols. The Intermind product, as those of you know that get these missives this way, doesn't take a great deal of work to set up and maintain.
  4. A full-fledged content delivery development platform. This is the market that is most unknown, mainly because no one has any idea of the nature of these applications. Yet. I think Marimba has the best fit here. Again, this has received a lot of attention in the trades. Creating development tools is a humble, slow-starting market, and there are few people outside of Redmond that know how to pull this off well.
So where do the millions of other push vendors fit in here? The answer is, they might not make it. Having ten thousand channels and sending all sorts of content down to fill up my meager hard disk right now via a browser-add on isn't going to work.

The things I saw at Microsoft changed that, though. Since you didn't get the demo, do take a moment to browse their announcement of what they call "Home Entertainment for Windows."

There are three key things buried in this announcement. First, Microsoft is trying to use broadband TV to deliver all that data. If you have a single TV channel, a satellite dish and a big enough hard disk, you can probably download the entire contents of the top 100 (200? Who knows?) web sites. Second, they use the TV experience wisely, to build audience and demand and to simplify the user interface. You have a screen that shows the video inside one frame, while providing running HTML content around in other frames. Third, they don't have to worry about what content is local and what is out on the net, because part of the system is to ask what kinds of stuff you want to subscribe to in the next 24 hours. Given the broadband bandwidth, they can err on the side of too much (if your disk is big enough) and get all sorts of stuff.

Finally, all those Gatesian speeches on broadband now make a great deal of sense. Cue that Twilight Zone music again, please.

So after seeing this demo, I have to take back two things: My articles on why I hate off-line browsing (written over a year ago) and why convergence won't happen (written over three years ago) are wrong. If you up the scale to gigabytes, then having a local copy of the entire web universe that interests you is okay. If you have Microsoft developing tools for TV producers to develop content for this new system, then convergence also begins to make sense.

The Microsoft Home Entertainment system isn't a slam dunk. Hollywood has to learn HTML, broadband TV has to fit inside your PC, and disk prices have to come way down. None of these are going to happen tomorrow, or even by year end. In the meantime, I'll continue to fill up my own hard drive with more clueless push articles.

Sitekeeping and self-promotions dep't

I've been busy writing as always, and the following articles have appeared over the past few weeks:

For Infoworld, I've written two reviews on web site analysis tools: SiteSweeper, which looks for broken links; and NetIntellect's traffic and log analyzer. My latest advertorial supplement for Network Computing is out on building intranets on top of NT. I wrote the introduction and the article on managing push-publishing for intranets. Finally, there is my latest "Browser" column for Windows Sources on how to use animated GIFs to spruce up your web pages.

David Strom
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.