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Is push still dead?

With BackWeb attracting $20 million from investors and the technology showing up in various uses, it seems push could be coming back.

When PointCast pulled its IPO last month, some thought it signaled the end of the era of overhyped push technology.

But if it's dead, how did another push firm, BackWeb Technologies, land $20 million last week in a private placement with financial investors and Intel?

Compaq Computer's new AltaVista Discovery search application, announced today, uses technology from push darling Marimba. So does Netscape Communications' Communicator Net suite, as will Intuit's Quicken 99 personal finance software.

"The idea is to insinuate yourselves into people's systems to make yourself the ball bearing without which the tank doesn't roll," said Zona Research industry analyst Martin Marshall, who prefers the term "event-driven" when referring to push. "In general, a good deal of this is becoming the screwdriver in someone else's toolset."

Although the first commercial applications for push were in reaching consumers over the Internet, the technology has been seen to be more viable for internal corporate networks. All new online applications go through some growing pains and changes, and whether push will become prevalent depends on its success in its new niche.

"For content distribution, it just flopped," Julian said. "Software updates is going to be the most promising [application], but that has taken longer than any start-up software can survive."

Forrester Research analyst Ted Julian thinks push companies focused on distributing software for corporate customers make a better bet than those pushing information to consumers, like PointCast.

On the content side, some companies, such as Wayfarer, recently acquired by Vantive, used push technology to send information to its sales staff.

"You can it sell [push] based on pushing out data to the appropriate people, but when you've already got an email system, it's hard to justify the expense," Julian added.

Zona's Marshall noted that Marimba today provides components for other software developers' applications. "That also means you don't have to be profitable as your own business," he said, putting both PointCast and BackWeb in that category.

"If you look at [the two companies] on basis of their balance sheets, there's no reason in the world they should exist. But push as a component is not going to go away; it will be here for at least another decade," he said.

Part of the confusion, according to Marimba vice president Tom Banahan, is that the term "push" was used to describe companies with different technologies and strategies.

Richard Schwartz, chairman and chief technology officer of Diffusion, said "push" generally referred to companies that did Webcasting--broadcasting data via the Net using specific protocols so users could receive information without retrieving it.

Diffusion, which today released version 3.0 of its software to deliver event alerts via email, pages, fax, and other means, doesn't use Webcasting, although it's an option, because customers haven't asked for it, Schwartz added.

BackWeb, like Marimba, is having its "polite agent" technology built into other applications, including Computer Associates' Unicenter network management software. It allows companies to distribute software to remote users over the Net, not just on their corporate networks, said Julie Martin, BackWeb director of product marketing.

BackWeb also pushes information, as with oil service giant Schlumberger, which uses BackWeb tools to send information on operational failures to other sites using similar equipment.

Marimba, on the other hand, stresses its interest in delivering software application, not data--although its technology, like BackWeb's, can do both.