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Push Technology: Still Relevant After All These Years?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (23-Jul-2003)

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How often do you pick up your groceries? Some shoppers load up their carts with enough supplies to stockpile an underground bunker. Others make multiple trips to the store, picking up just enough for one day. Of course, there will be times when your usual store doesn't carry what you're looking for and you'll be forced to travel halfway across town in search of that exotic carambola.

This is a time-consuming chore that most of us could do without. Then along comes an enterprising problem-solver offering to do all the legwork for you. With a simple phone call and a grocery list, all of your supplies will be delivered straight to your door—and you won't even have to leave your house or change out of your pajamas.

With such convenience there's no way something like this can fail, right? So why am I still hoofing it to the grocery store every week?


What is Push?

Push technology is the process of automating the searching and delivery of content to a user's PC. Unlike traditional hunt-and-gather methods—using search engines like Google or AltaVista to actively seek out information on the Internet or an intranet—push is relatively passive, requiring little human interaction.

Users subscribe to content "channels" that correspond to various topics or categories such as current events, financial information, industry specific news, sports and entertainment, and updated stock quotes. The type of information and the frequency of delivery can be configured to suit an individual user's preference.

Push servers are designed to broadcast a user's chosen content and have it displayed on their PC. Although the methods of delivery may vary depending on the product or service, the most common come in the form of:

Content that's pushed onto a client PC is usually brief and contains little more than a summarized blurb with links to the full articles.

Although software in this class is collectively referred to as "push," the term may be a bit of a misnomer. In certain cases, depending on the particular software or service, content is actually pulled down from the server by the client PC. But regardless of whether content is pushed or pulled, the difference is negligible in the eyes of the end user since it's all transparent to them.


What Was Supposed to Happen

In order to maintain a competitive edge in today's market, vital business decisions need to be based on the most current information. And this information must be delivered to those who need it as soon as it becomes available.

Unfortunately, with traditional hunt-and-gather techniques, employees may end up a few steps behind because they either don't have the time during the day to actively search for current news or it just doesn't occur to them that they should do so—and when they do, do they know where to look?

Gartner Group estimates that 20 percent (about eight hours per week) of a knowledge worker's time is spent performing manual content management tasks, and searching for information is certainly one of them. This is a considerable amount of time that could otherwise be better spent putting the information to use.

The advent of push technology sought to change all that by closing the gap between the time information is made available and the time a user retrieves it. As a result, information is delivered to key decision-makers in real-time, eliminating the need for active searches and reducing the amount of time wasted in manually digging for information.

And the content delivered to a user's workstation doesn't have to be limited to external information either. Third party push services can be combined with information on a company's intranet as well.

Push software packages such as Netpresenter and AtHoc can be installed internally, within the corporate firewall, and allow content owners to create custom intranet channels with company specific information that's unavailable to the general public. They are also often used as a real-time internal communications tool, alerting employees of new policies or upcoming corporate events.

Push technology promised to revolutionize the way we gathered content and was to render the traditional Web search engine obsolete—so why hasn't it?


What Did Happen

Push was one of those technologies that never quite lived up to its hype; a classic example of theory versus practice, where the realities of the latter KO'd the ambitions of the former.

At the height of push technology's popularity, the bandwagon was being loaded up and Web browsers started incorporating push clients directly into their software; Microsoft integrated its Active Desktop with Windows and Internet Explorer, and Netscape bundled Netcaster into its Communicator suite.

While all this was happening, the emergence of broadband connections and better search engines made push less-and-less relevant. Among the half-dozen push products I implemented and tested on a control group of several hundred corporate clients back in the late 90s, none of these packages exist today.

The reasons push was never accepted as a primary information gathering tool are numerous. But the main issues stem from:


Network Payload: 20 Items or Less, Please

I'm sure that we have all, at one time or another, experienced a true test of patience and restraint as we maneuvered through a labyrinth of aisles and abandoned shopping carts or inched our way up the checkout line when the person in front decided to pay in loose change.

Now imagine that everyone decides to go to the grocery store at the same time, creating a bottleneck at the front door the likes of a rock concert.

Payload on a corporate proxy or intranet server may be considerable if a large number of push clients are set to receive information at the same time. Under normal usage, servers see intermittent bandwidth traffic; people trickling in and out of the store at different times during the day. Push technology means everyone ends up at the checkout counter at the same time, all jockeying for position.

And since push requires very little effort on the users' part, they may be tempted to subscribe to a lot of non-work-related channels, thus placing an additional burden on company resources. Without sufficient bandwidth and server resources, users will experience significant performance degradation.


Overly Intrusive: Would You Like to Try a Cracker?

There's nothing more annoying, when you're in a hurry or trying to concentrate on something, than having taste-testers popping out of the woodwork to ask if you would like to try the new Cheez Whiz.

Many push software vendors claim that e-mail alerts are insufficient in getting news to users because they can easily get lost in a pile of other messages. They add that their product allows companies to force employees to take notice of corporate information being delivered in a more "in-your-face" manner.

I've never been a big fan of the terms "force" and "in-your-face." Unless the building is on fire, employees should never be forced to drop what they're doing to read something on the spot. From my experience, users found these methods of push content delivery too intrusive. Rather than reading the information broadcast onto their screen, they ended up dismissing it or ignoring it altogether.

Let's take a closer look at the problems associated with the three traditional push delivery methods:

News tickers tend to play havoc with peripheral vision. The eye has a natural tendency to follow motion. So, when you're working on something, you may find your attention wandering to the little news ticker scrolling at the bottom of the screen instead focusing on what you should really be doing. Much like the CNN ticker at the bottom of the TV screen, you end up concentrating on it rather than the main story.

Users often treat pop-up alerts in the same manner as Internet pop-up ads—they simply close them. And seeing an alert is a far cry from reading an alert. What's worse is that pop-up alert windows usually take the focus of the user's cursor. So if you tend to type without looking at the screen, you may find that the last sentence you typed didn't appear because the pop-up alert window had stolen focus.

Pushing content onto a screen saver has always been a mystery to me. Screen savers are activated when there hasn't been any PC activity for a certain length of time. And if there hasn't been any PC activity, it probably means the user is busy doing something else. And if the user is busy doing something else, why would they be staring at a screen saver like a television?


Information Overload: Price Club Mentality

Having your groceries delivered to your house is a convenient way to get all your shopping done without lifting a finger except to open the door. But if you buy too much at one time, you won't be able to consume it all before something goes stale.

When forced to search for content manually, users are more selective because it takes a certain amount of time and effort to find what they're looking for. With the convenience and automation of pushed content, they will be tempted to adopt a kid-in-a-candy-store mentality by subscribing to more than any one person can absorb in a day.

After a user sees something of interest dancing across their screen, they may simply file this information away, promising themselves that they will get around to reading it when they have more time—and we all know that this time rarely, if ever, comes. By then, this large cache of information is out-of-date.


Conclusion: Please Come Again...

The list of defunct push products and services reads like a post-mortem report. Has push technology reached the end of its rope?

While push is certainly still used in corporate environments, it's unlikely that it will ever fill that niche it hoped to in the 90s by becoming the de facto method of Internet and intranet information gathering and delivery.

Although much of the fanfare has gone by the wayside, it's making a comeback in a smaller package.

With the increase in Web-enabled portable devices such as PDAs and cell phones, push has been given new life. Web navigation on portable, handheld devices is awkward at best. Having specific, user-defined content pushed to these devices will take the frustration out of having to navigate through a series of menus.

So, going to the grocery store isn't all bad. But sometimes it's so nice just to be able to pick up the phone.


Copyright © 2003 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.