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Wireless Web embraces "push"

The old technology, which flopped in the earlier days of the Internet, is finding redemption in millions of cell phones. But will push last this time?

Push technology--a concept that has come to epitomize the bloated promises of the dot-com era--is finding redemption in millions of cell phones.
Read more about the wireless Web

Promoted by companies such as PointCast in the early days of the Web, push technology was hyped as one of the Net's first "killer apps." The idea seemed solid: Rather than surfing several Web sites to locate tidbits of data, consumers would choose information such as sports scores or news they wanted "pushed" to their PCs.

The concept for a variety of reasons, including the increased use of broadband connections and tools that made surfing more efficient.

Cell phones have now picked up where push fell down. Web surfing over mobile phones still remains a cumbersome task because of cramped keypads, slow download times and generally clunky interfaces. Although the number of people who download mobile data from their cell phones remains small--estimated at less than 7 percent in the United States last year--push technology is catching on.

Companies such as Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless are now "pushing" news and sports scores to their customers to encourage more Americans to surf by mobile phone.

Push "was popular at the beginning of the Internet, when people weren't browsing that much and weren't used to it," Yankee Group wireless analyst Eugene Signorini said. "The same is true of push on the mobile Web right now."

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Rainey said part of the appeal is easy access to information while on the go. "It gives you instantaneous access to information. We've seen an increase in a number of people using the Web in day-to-day activities."

Surfing the Web on cell phones is often a tedious process. Typing a URL into a handset's tiny keypad is cumbersome; viewing Web results on a small, often monochromatic screen is uninspiring. To combat these ills, cell phone providers considered several software and hardware fixes. Yet push has proven effective--so far--since it is affordable, and easy to implement.

Point, shoot, fizzle
The owner of PointCast, which created push technology, isn't taking to its latest incarnation.
Companies are busy touting "push" for wireless phones--but the owner of the company that founded the technology isn't one of them.

San Diego-based alerts service company Infogate, which owns the remnants of PointCast, has been slowly integrating push into a toolbar product that lets people receive targeted portfolio information and personalized news online.

The company isn't looking to offer that capability for wireless devices, Infogate Vice President Paul Love said. Infogate customers say tiny cell phone screens make for tough reading beyond "more than a couple of words," he said.

The company sends news and stock alerts to subscribers' PCs; information is sent to a cell phone only if the data is unread on the PC for a period of time.

After a canceled initial public offering and several failed merger and partnership attempts, PointCast was by venture capital firm Idealab. The company integrated PointCast with another of its acquisitions, Launchpad Technologies, which sold e-commerce software for online shopping.

The merged company, based in San Diego, was called EntryPoint. Infogate bought EntryPoint last year and now sells personalized versions of its push technology to businesses such as CNN.

--B.C.

"I didn't want to use my fat fingers on that small keyboard," said Matthew Downs, a push wireless e-mail fan and networking and telecommunications consultant based in Singapore.

Push has simplified the process for many Web surfers. Reading a 160-character message dropped into a wireless in-box--all for $4 a month, on average--beats typing lengthy URLs with sore thumbs, fans of the technology say.

Sports updates or other news alerts are among some of the most popular wireless Web services offered by companies such as Gordano, which sells messaging equipment to wireless and landline telephone providers. The company says it will soon add push to its offerings.

Push and pull
Push for cell phones seems to be mainly a phenomenon in the United States, but that could be changing.

Although most U.S. carriers sell push service, European cell phone providers are just beginning to explore push technology, said Paul D. Baker, a spokesman for Comverse, one of the largest suppliers of landline and wireless phone services and equipment.

Comverse offers services such as "one-touch return" to answer a call, or a single mailbox for faxes, e-mails or voice messages. It also offers telephone companies in 100 countries wireless applications such as SMS (short message service), instant messaging and "push" e-mails.

Despite these advances, some analysts wonder whether push technology can continue to grow at such a steady pace.

One speed bump would be improvements to cell phone handset technology. Manufacturers are creating new designs to make typing in names or addresses more efficient.

Danger's handheld device offers a traditional keyboard, big enough for two thumbs. Nokia plans to release a "one-handed" with a circular keypad, designed to let people type with a thumb. Virtual or attachable keyboards are becoming standard on most higher-end smart phones, which combine the function of a phone and a PDA (personal digital assistant).

The easier it becomes to enter data into a cell phone, the less important push technology could become, Jupiter Research wireless analyst Joe Laszlo said.

"These interfaces are getting a lot better. Push may not be needed much any more," Laszlo said.