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2.2A Prominent Change Driver: Push Technology

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As said in the introduction, the way in which most people search for information on the Internet, is in need for a change. An increasing number of Internet users no longer wish to spend endless hours 'surfing' the Net, looking for the information they need. What many of them want is to indicate (once) which topics are (currently) of interest to them, and then receive the information about these topics as it becomes available on the Net.

It is exactly this what so-called Push Technology has promised it would do: push information to the user about topics he or she is interested in, whenever it suits him best, and preferably by using the medium and the format which is most appropriate and most convenient at that moment1. Now that Push Technology has been around for almost two years, it seems safe to conclude that while it has not turned into the ‘do-all, end-all’ solution it was said to be, it has had an important influence in such areas as browser developments and the ways in which consumers and organisations look at - and use - the Internet’s information market.

Central to the concept of Push Technology is the idea of so-called information channels; each subject about which information needs to be pushed to a user (e.g. the latest stock quotes) has its own, separate channel. Besides its subject, other properties of a channel are the way in which information is displayed (e.g. via a screensaver, separate viewer, SMS messages), how someone is notified of the arrival of new information, and how this information is pushed/send to the user (e.g. only a summary or the entire document, or only when the user asks to do so).

Push Technology offers interesting opportunities to both information providers as well as to information consumers, such as:
information providers can target their information much more accurately, i.e. it will only go to those persons that are genuinely interested in the information that is send to them (as they actively chose to receive it)2;
users can rely on qualified Push source (e.g. CNN or Wired Magazine) to get their content. The experience and authority of such content providers will make it possible for users to get high quality information;
users no longer have to check their favourite or popular sites to check if the information on them has changed as they will automatically receive a notification whenever this has happened;
many Push applications are very similar to television, and therefore easy to use and operate, especially by novice users.

Yet, Push Technology has it disadvantages and concerns as well, the most important ones being:
    when users receive their information automatically - eliminating the need to step on the Web to find it themselves - they may miss valuable and relevant information; the quality of the received information thus becomes strongly depended on whoever pushes it towards you.

"If there's a drawback to Push, it may be that it could turn the Web into a more passive medium. Push enough content at me [every morning] and I won't need to explore the Web to find it -- which could mean I won't find new stuff, either. Will the rise of Push mean the loss of serendipity, that sweet anticipation of surprise that Web surfers cherish?"
from "Half a Billion Dollars Worth of Push?" in WebReview

the range of topics as covered by most Push publishers is not that broad at all; users that would like to have information pushed towards them about topics that leave the threaded path will have to find other information sources to get it. An alternative is to use a Push service or application that works with an information profile. However, to create such a profile the user will have to find out what the right keywords are to describe his information need, a task which most people are not very good at.

"User-generated profiles are essentially one or more search queries that are saved by the push service to filter its various data feeds or channels. Creating and maintaining these profiles can exert a huge burden on users, assuming their information needs can be expressed in those profiles. Certainly, our information needs are constant to some degree: we always want to know the weather forecast for our hometowns, and there's not much that will ever change about that information need. And those kinds of needs are often satisfied by 'infopellets'.

But when a user wants to know about ‘trends in retail marketing to the 55 and older age group’, there'd better be a pretty sophisticated profiling system that can handle such a complex query. And if after a while the user decides that she was really interested in ‘purchasing habits of senior citizens’, that profiling system better be as good as that librarian at figuring out how and why that information need changed, and how to adjust its retrieval to address this change. I doubt that users of push services will be bothered to maintain such profiles, even if they were sophisticated to handle such complexity."

from WebReview

products using Push Technology consume considerable amounts of Internet bandwidth. Dr John Graham-Cumming, who led a recent study of Internet traffic to determine trends in Internet use, wrote a paper about this subject:

"It was surprising to discover that almost a fifth of network traffic is derived from the use of Push Technologies. [...] Of the top Internet sites that are consistently visited, standard browser home page access accounted for 12% of network traffic generated by 70% of users, while Push Technology applications accounted for over 17% of traffic generated by only 12% of total users. The small number of users connected to push technologies are generating this large amount of traffic because of the continuous and automatic nature of push technologies, according to the study."

Push Technology makes rather big demands at both the client as well as on the supply side. On the client side a fast and preferably permanent Internet connection is needed, as well as a computer which preferably has a fast processor and quite a lot of storage and memory space. On the supply side the investments in both time and money that have to be made, are high. Push Technology server software does not come cheap, and it usually requires a powerful server, a lot of storage space and a fast Internet connection.

Several solutions have been proposed to solve or circumvent these problems. A rather unusual one is to use e-mail as a Push Medium, as e-mail is by far the most popular communication medium on the Internet and as a broad range of content can be delivered through it (such as complete Web-pages, including graphics and applets - that is of course: if the mail program supports these formats). Incompatibility problems are virtually non-existent since all mail programs use the same standard (SMTP) to send and receive mail messages, so e-mail could be a good Push medium.
Other solutions are adding agent-like functionality to Push applications or setting up sophisticated intermediary services (thus making it possible to offer a broad range of information channels from very specialised information providers). We will have a look at these two solutions in the next section.

In short: when applied in the right way, Information Push/Push Technology can offer numerous opportunities, especially to content providers. Weather forecasts, sports, and news are obvious applications, but it seems like the less obvious applications, aimed at providing specialised information, are the most viable.
For example, the Web site of the American company Rent Net provides constantly updated apartment-rental listings and relocation help for thousands of cities. Rent Net's Push channel alerts people to listings that meet their specific criteria. Subscribers can then look at floor plans and do 3-D virtual walk-throughs.

More and more voices can be heard that say that Push is dead. Whether or not they are right, Push has shown us one important thing: many people like the idea of having the information they need or like send to them at regular intervals. If they can ‘outsource’ this task to others (be that applications or companies) then most of them are more than happy to do so.

1= E.g. send a pager message when someone is currently not online, or send only the URL of a document to a user's email box since the user is currently using a low bandwidth connection to the Internet (so sending the complete document would consume too much time and resources).
2= Of course it is easy to turn this ‘advantage’ into a disadvantage: large publishers can use Push to get their content to users who probably wouldn’t normally have visited their Web site.
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Chapter 2 - The Internet (of) Today "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch" -
by Björn Hermans