This week at Comdex, a kind of Web publishing generically referred to as "push" technology received its most significant endorsement to date with the introduction of Constellation, the code name for a new technology from Netscape Communications (NSCP).
Like push solutions from other vendors, Netscape's Constellation applies a simple but potentially significant alteration to standard Web publishing. Rather than requiring users to venture out to Web sites, push technology automatically delivers information, such as news headlines or sports statistics, over the Net directly to a user's screen at designated times.
The result, in the parlance of push technology advocates, is that Web sites are no longer Web sites, but "channels," and Web browsers become something more akin to television or radio. The new metaphor may radically change the nature of Web content publishing. First, Web content providers will have to focus even more on providing continual updates and fresh information to feed to users, who will no longer be straying by accident onto their sites. Second, users who rely on pushed information will end up spending less time online, possibly relieving Net congestion.
"It's an acknowledgment that the pull nature of the Web is inadequate," said Ira Machefsky, an analyst at the Giga Information Group research firm. "[Pushing] reduces the bandwidth required for communications and most importantly, conserves time."
Netscape is by no means alone or first in promoting push technology, but its dominance in the browser markets gives its endorsement special weight. Microsoft also plans to incorporate push capabilities into Internet Explorer 4.0, due out in beta form later this year.
The vendor that pioneered push technology is PointCast, which only last February introduced the PointCast Network, a collection of channels or categories of information providers that is broadcast to software--a combination screensaver and browser--on the users' desktop. Since then, a number of other vendors have pitched their tents in push territory, including Marimba, BackWeb, and Intermind.
Although they all use different interfaces, each of these companies is basing their efforts on a single premise: There's simply too much information on the Internet and not enough time in most people's lives to search for it.
"There is a ton of information sitting in databases and servers that needs to be brought to the center of attention for users," said Mike McCue, director of client technology at Netscape.
While PointCast has focused on delivering news and "infotainment" to a consumer audience, McCue believes that the technology will appeal as much to corporate IS managers because Constellation will let them distribute memos, calendars, notices, any kind of company information across company networks easily and quickly.
Still, some observers are concerned that the new TV-like metaphor may have the effect of turning Net surfers into passive mouse potatoes. Others question whether custom information feeds may erode the sense of community that many Web sites now encourage.
"At times I wonder if it hasn't gone too far," said William Gurley, an analyst with Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. "Newspapers aggregate people into common groups of interest. Over time you start to feel isolated."