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The hype that surrounded push technology in 1997 is beginning to fade. What was once the hottest technology on the block is quietly evolving into a tool that attempts to solve real business problems.
Application distributor Castanet 2.0 Marimba Inc. Content aggregator PointCast Business Network 2.0 PointCast Inc. Platform provider BackWeb 4.0 Infocenter BackWeb Technologies Real-time data transfer TIB/Rendezvous 4.1 Tibco Software Inc.
The advent of push technology enabled people to set up channels and have news and information delivered directly to their desktops, freeing them from having to go out to the Web and dig for it. The hype that surrounded this development was deafening and prompted lots of business users to soak up the latest sports and entertainment news while their PointCast browsers ate up company bandwidth.
Now that corporate IS has started questioning the real business applications of push, the same vendors that once basked in the rosy glow of adulation are now reluctant to use the term "push technology" to describe their products. This evolution was necessary, forcing us to see the technology not as an end unto itself, but as a means to an end. That is, after all, what technology is all about.
The evolution of push is similar to the one that took place in the early 1980s with the graphical user interface (GUI). Initially, marketers and the media focused on GUI as a new and curious technology. As the novelty wore off, products were no longer touted as GUI applications, but simply as useful products that happened to have a graphical user interface. These days, you never hear anyone say, "I need a graphical word processor," but you often hear people say, "I need to type a letter."
The push market is beginning to fragment into distinct segments, making it easier to see how the technology can be used to solve particular business problems. Push applications remain fairly specialized, however. Today, there are businesses that will definitely benefit from push technology, but the majority of businesses probably do not need it yet. The next generation of products will be more compelling because the mechanics of push will be even further integrated with the applications.
THE NAME OF THE GAME. We've heard a lot of noise about push in terms of delivering content, mostly because Microsoft and Netscape have the loudest megaphones, but that's only part of the show. The push market is actually much broader and is divided into four basic categories: application distributor, content aggregator, platform provider, and real-time data transfer. In this Test Center Analysis, we tested four products that best represent each of the categories and a fifth product you probably have already installed: e-mail.
Products in the application distributor space enable you to automatically deliver simple applications to your end-users. Best illustrated by Marimba's Castanet 2.0, these application distributor tools have tremendous potential as a value-add for your customers and employees, but it will be a long time before your IS department will use them to update Microsoft Office. Today, Castanet cannot deliver shrink-wrapped applications, but it can deliver applications specifically designed for Castanet.
Content aggregators, represented by PointCast and Desktop Data, are a one-stop source for news and information. They gather content, format it in a consistent wrapper, and push it to your desktop before you even ask for it. The PointCast Business Network 2.0, the product we tested, offers this service to you for free, earning revenue by sneaking advertisements in with the content. Desktop Data charges a subscription for premium information. Most content aggregators also let you create your own channels or subject groups. We talked with one manager who capitalized on PointCast Business Network as an internal communications tool because so many employees were already using it as a news source.
Platform providers are similar to content aggregators, except what you are buying is the infrastructure to deploy content delivery systems as you see fit. Generally, vendors such as BackWeb Technologies charge a fee, but offer you 100-percent control of the content passing through your network and the flexibility to run it your way. There are many vendors in this space, but BackWeb offers a proxy server, that lets you easily deploy content across multiple sites, making it a good choice for the enterprise.
Real-time data transfer is one of the more compelling applied uses of push technology. It's expensive to implement, but if the success of your business depends on timely, guaranteed delivery of information, nothing else in the push market will do. Represented here by Tibco Software, this class of software offers the advantage of multicasting -- the capability to efficiently and simultaneously send information to a multitude of sources. Real-time data transfer is also transparent, which speaks volumes about how technology should serve business: Users should not need to know it's there.
All four types of push solutions are real and viable, but ultimately you are the only one who can decide if they will benefit your business. A successful push implementation demands foresight, restraint, and an understanding of your audience. A badly deployed or ill-fitting product will cost you in lost employee productivity and discarded IS resources. Above all, you want to provide your customers and employees with meaningful content, not another distraction.
The real world
Push technology is moving from the ranks of consumer products to become part of the elite group of mission-critical business applications that form the backbone of the enterprise. We contacted a handful of forward-thinking companies to find out how push gives them an edge over the competition.
The marketing machine
Executive management at 3Com, the …