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Push panelists want privacy

A panel of software developers and analysts focus on the importance of privacy and security during their debate on the current abilities and limitations of "push."

LAS VEGAS--A panel of software developers and analysts here yesterday debated the current abilities and limitations of "push," with much of the focus on the importance of privacy and security to the adoption of the nascent technology.

From the next big thing to last month's fad, the idea of "push" has run the gamut of popularity this year. However, yesterday's panelists took the middle ground. They offered practical advice to the audience, as well as warnings about the need for privacy and security as content providers gather increasing amounts of user information in order to customize and distribute information to those users across the Internet and private networks.

Peter Burris, a vice president at the technology analysis and consulting firm Meta Group, said, "Some of my clients don't make a technical decision on push without a lawyer in the room. This is a major, major issue of ethical and legal concerns, and you really have to think about what it means to secure the infrastructure."

Burris was responding to an audience member who expressed concern about the need to surrender demographic information in order to benefit from the convenience of having personalized information delivered regularly to the desktop.

Individuals are not the only ones concerned, according to another panelist whose company delivers information to big-business clients in finance, economics, agriculture, and other fields.

"To be efficient you have to know what customers' needs are, but a lot of customers don't want to divulge those needs," Primark chief technology officer Dr. Robert Brammer said in describing what he called "one of the dilemmas of push."

"It's a trade-off between security and efficiency of transmission," he added.

Primark's subsidiary companies use a multitude of network vehicles, including satellites, to deliver its goods. Primark-owned Intellicast is the sole supplier of weather information to the Weather Channel and MSNBC, according to Brammer.

InfoBeat founder and chairman John Funk, whose company aggregates and sends free news summaries and other content over email, argued that there was a lower level of security and privacy concerns for end consumers who want general information. InfoBeat--until recently known as Mercury Mail--matches subscriber profiles with advertisers and puts banner ads in the "pushed" email.

"It becomes a big issue for individuals' financial transactions, but in the space we play in we don't know enough about our users to gather 'intelligence,'" Funk said.

InfoBeat subscribers must submit their first and last names, zip codes, income levels, marital status, and number of kids. Its approximately 1 million subscribers have all "opted in" to the service, meaning they have visited the Infobeat Web site and proactively signed up.

Despite the Internet ubiquity of email--"it was, is, and always will be the killer app," Funk said--he acknowledged that plain-text delivery doesn?t pay the bills.

"Our subscriber base needs to be shifted over to HTML-based mail," in which writers--and more importantly, advertisers--can add graphics and hyperlinks, he said. About half the company's subscribers currently use HTML-based mail, now supported in many email clients. Another 20 to 30 percent use Web-based services, such as Hotmail or RocketMail, according to Funk.

Security is also a concern of information publishers. Another point of debate was "guaranteed delivery," or the assurance that a warning message, software update, or urgent document has arrived quickly and securely at its destination. Primark's Brammer said such a guarantee was essential to the prosperity of push solutions in the workplace, while Funk pointed out that the infrastructure expense of guaranteeing delivery would currently be prohibitive for low-cost or no-cost consumer solutions.

Tony Davis, senior vice president of product development at provider BackWeb, touted the security features, including digital certificates and secured channels, of his company's push solutions, which are aimed at corporate customers.

For a group of propush players, the panelists were frank about the current limitations. When an audience member asked point-blank if the current state of push would let him upgrade from Windows 3.1 to 95 on 70,000 PCs over the weekend, the answer across the board was an unequivocal "no."

One interesting note: neither Microsoft nor Netscape had representatives on the panel. The companies' inclusion of push "channels" in their latest 4.0 browser suites has shaken out the push market, BackWeb's Davis said.

But the main focus remained on privacy and security. In the closing question-and-answer session, the Meta Group's Burris insisted that the societal implications of stored personal information not go unheeded.

"These considerations will vastly outweigh convenience," he said. "Security and privacy will be the dominant push issues until we get them worked out."