(This inaugurates a new monthly column about developments on the Internet. The author happens to be Slate's chief computer guy, but the column is intended for an audience as innocent of technology as he is about a lot of the stuff they write about in the Back of the Book.)
Microsoft recently announced an alliance with a company called PointCast. The press heralded this deal as confirmation that "push" is the latest Big Thing for the Web. "Push" refers to the way that information gets delivered. Do you have to go to it (pull)? Or does it come to you (push)? The conventional way to read your favorite Internet content is to dial up to the Internet, find your favorite site(s), wait for them to download, navigate to items of interest, wait for them to download, and so forth. That's "pull"--and the pull had better be pretty strong, or you'll give up. "Push" technology, by contrast, is supposed to do all this for you. It dials up, connects to selected sites, downloads certain information, and arranges it in an easy-to-read format--all while you sleep (or are otherwise living your life). The advantage to you is that it's all there waiting to be read, at fast hard-drive speed instead of slow modem speed. The advantage to the information provider is that information "pushed" at customers is more likely to find them than information they must go out and "pull."
One metaphor commonly applied here is a newspaper being delivered to your door instead of your having to pick it up at the newsstand. Given the Internet's unreliability, a more appropriate metaphor might be sending a highly trained dog to the newsstand to pick up the paper. Most of the time you'd get the New York Times, but some of the time you'd get Fire Hydrant Weekly--and occasionally, your dog would just wander off looking for a bone. Still, it's an improvement.
PointCast is the most successful "push" technology so far. The company provides a free piece of software (downloadable from its site) that allows you to select from a handful of "channels" (sports, business, arts and entertainment, etc.). At set intervals, the software instructs your computer to connect to the Internet, go to the company's site, and download the latest news in those categories. It also downloads some ads. Then, whenever your computer has been idle for a few minutes, this news and these ads pop up on the custom screen saver the software has installed on your machine. Because the material is presented after the download is complete, the display is fast. And because the process uses the company's own software and not a standard Web browser, the display is customized to the task at hand, making it attractive and eye-catching.
In fact, using PointCast, you quickly realize that this is nothing like having a newspaper delivered. This is a lot more like watching television. That helps to explain PointCast's popularity: The company claims that 1.7 million users have downloaded its software to date, and that its site gets 40 million hits a day. (A "," though, is an elusive concept.) But PointCast's success at "push" is drawing lots of rivals, both small start-ups and the big boys.
P ointCast essentially sells three services in one. The first automatically connects to the Internet and downloads things so you can read them offline. The second finds and collects things that interest you. The third presents them effectively. Other companies offer Web offline-reading technologies. The first generation of these, such as WebWhacker, Milktruck (now WebEx), and FreeLoader, all work pretty much the same way: You tell the software which sites you want downloaded, and the software tells your computer to do it at prearranged times.
But what does it mean to "download a site"? A site is a collection of pages, linked together as well as to other pages on other sites. How many pages should the software download? Too few, and you're missing out on something. Too many, and you might overflow your hard drive. These companies solve this problem by making relationships with specific sites that agree to tailor a version to that company's software. That's why some sites (like Slate) sport FreeLoader logos, while others (like the Wall Street Journal) might recommend WebEx.
Acompany called Peak Media uses similar technology to take a different approach: trying to make online browsing more satisfying. Peak Net.Jet software uses idle modem time to download pages it thinks--based on pages you frequent--you probably want to read. For instance, every so often I visit the Dilbert archive. To read two weeks of cartoons, I would have to click on each cartoon's date and wait for that image to download. Peak Net.Jet promises to remember that I like that page, and to download it all for me ahead of time while I surf elsewhere. When I go back, I find that it has already downloaded the last two weeks' cartoons, making my experience fast and easy.
Unfortunately for these companies, the technology to download sites ahead of time is simple. In the past, small companies have innovated with features like disk compression and virus checking, only to find themselves squeezed out when those features were incorporated into basic operating systems like Windows and OS/2. So, if downloading sites is simple, why shouldn't Microsoft build that capability into Internet Explorer, or Netscape into Navigator? Well, they are. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 will provide an "Active Desktop," which shows "pushed" content right there behind your Windows windows. Netscape has a similar product in development called "Constellation."
Smaller companies, therefore, must distinguish themselves by the content they gather and how they present it if they are to compete. In the Internet world, where content--even good content--is proliferating rapidly, a very good filter will be needed to sort out what interests you from what doesn't. PointCast has succeeded so far with a mass-market approach--relatively few news sources, sorted into relatively few "buckets." Individual Inc. (in which Slate publisher Microsoft owns a minority interest) provides a high-tech clipping service called NewsPage. You choose from thousands of distinct topics and companies, and have relevant articles from over 630 sources delivered to you by e-mail, or to a personalized Web page. Other companies, such as Cognisoft, take this same approach to corporate intranets (internal networks), hoping that "push" technology will be even more useful in distributing the right information to the right employees.
Another "push" technology to watch is Marimba's Castanet, which attempts to generalize the technique. Unlike PointCast, which downloads its own content, and the offline reader clones, which download only Web pages, Castanet can download Java applications and applets in addition to Web pages.
Although much of this software is advertising-driven--hence, free--you will still pay a price. All these products download content whether you actually read it or not. Since not everyone will read everything they order up at no charge, an enormous amount of pointless net traffic is being generated. As if the Web wasn't slow enough already. In fact, some corporations have banned PointCast because it was causing huge increases in their net traffic. PointCast responded with a piece of software for companies' central computers designed to minimize its own impact. And this one's not free. It's almost a protection racket. You give away your software free to a company's employees. A few weeks later, you saunter over and say, "Nice little corpnet you've got here--too bad it's getting all clogged up. Buy our software and we'll keep it running smoothly." Once a company buys that software, it is less likely to switch content providers. So maybe it's more like dealing drugs. Either way, everybody wins: The employees read their news, the company has a clear net again, and it's a nice annuity for PointCast.