Web Informant #101, 9 February 1998:
Email as the rebirth of push


Quote of the week:
One person's spam is another person's gold. There's a tolerance point, and if I'm thrown too much [email], I'm going to reject it.
--- reaction to the multiplying number of email notification services in today's New York Times.

Push technology has gone from hype to hopeless so fast that many of you might have missed its latest rebirth. Today's push products make use of email to deliver notification and content.

I had a feeling this was going to happen. I've gotten the same answer from every push vendor CEO that I've met with over the past 18 months. When I asked them how they wanted to receive information from me, via their own software or via email, the universal answer was email.

Push products had plenty of problems. They really didn't have the publishing tools at all. You often didn't know who your audience is, couldn't tell what software they used to view your content, and often preparing content took loads of time and was also a hit or miss proposition. Most of the products couldn't even tell you whether your readers actually received your content, let alone if they spent any time reading it. Try doing this with a print publisher or television producer and see how long you stay in business.

Push suffered from neglect, as our CEOs have demonstrated, since you really want to get your information delivered to your email inbox, whatever and wherever that may be. While many push technologies install special software on your desktop or augment your browser with plug-ins or other software, most of us use our inboxes as ways to order our day's priorities. Given our already bloated hard disks full of other software, the incremental piece of push software was too much for many of us to deal with. It seems like a small point, but it isn't. And I've seen first-hand how many of us tire of getting so many cutesy screen saver animations and other digital effluvia. We all quickly turned the push channels off, uninstalled the software, and went back to using our email for some real work.

Most of the push products didn't really take advantage of email at all -- they used the browser either as the control panel to tune in to a particular channel or as a container to deposit the information itself. This was a problem, because everyone uses different browser versions, different platforms, and different configurations. Installing browser plug-ins is hard, and not every push vendor supported a wide enough range of operating system platforms either.

Contrast this browser situation with email. Email is pretty much a bread and butter application. Everyone's email does work differently, but getting messages sent doesn't require you to install extra software on your machine. You just send the message. Most email programs don't have plug-ins or extensions that require you to become a part-time software installer and troubleshooter.

Early push products ate bandwidth like nothing else, and became a pox upon the network. Products like PointCast behaved so badly that any mention of them could cause a long string of curse words from many IS managers' lips. It wasn't unusual to see 15% or more of a corporation's overall T-1 circuit consumed with the network traffic resulting from PointCast software.

Push was hungry for bandwidth largely because of some sloppy programming on the part of its creators, who worked with fat Internet pipes and in small companies. Once this network faux pas was realized, the push creators moved quickly to cut their bandwidth consumption. However, by then the damage had been done, and corporate IS managers wanted little to do with these products.

Push also had no real standards to build upon. Every vendor had his own scheme for notification and delivery of pushed content. This was especially true for Microsoft and Netscape, who developed their own incompatible software, protocols, and systems. Some of the push prowess depended on the web and HTML. Some worked at lower level TCP/IP protocols. The wide variety of push differences continue to bedevil the push players, and even the applications developed for one company's early software versions aren't compatible with later ones.

To make matters worse, few could agree on what push really means. What about products that didn't really send any content at all but polled a particular server at specific intervals: shouldn't that be called scheduled pull? What about products that just organize web sites that you have already visited: shouldn't that be called something else?

Enter email.

The real advantage that email brings to the push party is universal notification. And my own use of Revnet's GroupMaster technology has signed up more people to receive these essays faster than any of the push products I've used, and I've used many of them.

I've seen an explosion of such services and uses of email by a wide variety of commercial and non-commercial vendors. For example, my favorite online bookstore Amazon.com can send you email when a new book matching certain criteria or from certain authors is published. GreetSt.com, an online greeting card company, can send you email to remind you not to miss sending that certain someone a birthday card.

I get daily emails telling me the closing prices of my investments, and other emails with news digests related to particular technologies. Most of the airlines have mailings set up to remind you of travel bargains, including American Airlines which has different mailings for domestic and international fares.

I predict those push players that have discovered how to integrate email will be the survivors. The others? Well, maybe I can interest you in trying out this browser plug-in....

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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