push channels: broadcasting Web pages

Some things will be part of the history of computers. The mouse and Windows will have chunks all to themselves. Quite how many chapters the World Wide Web will take up is anyone’s guess – in fact it could be the name of the book.

About to be written is a new chapter about a dramatic turn around in Web thinking. People browse the Web is search of information nuggets. If what’s on offer is any clue, they search for news, sport, and weather. They look for money facts, film facts, and just facts.

Maybe they don’t look enough because now the information providers are tooling up to start actually sending or broadcasting their content. As the fine detail is being written, those who want news and sport every hour on the hour can sign up for it. And on the hour, down the wire will come the information – as Web pages stored on their computer. They call it ‘push’.

Those who use the Internet will have seen part of the ‘push’ concept running over e-mail. People sign up to mailing lists and watch their mailboxes fill up with news on whatever takes their interest. For example, at Infoseek, a ‘search engine’ site people can join a list to get news headlines. They merely click and create a cocktail of sport, weather and technology news it arrives by e-mail.

But what is being pushed soon is Web pages, and Web pages is everything. What is needed at this, the client end of things is a piece of software. Netscape will soon have a ‘client’, understood to be in their Compass code-named product. The imminent Internet Explorer 4 browser will have one too. The Microsoft release might even be another computing milestone as this browser will be built into the Windows desktop. A blending of technologies will make the entire screen backdrop a window on the Web, as well as a window on your work. With that to come, both of these clients promise elements of intelligence, a sort of intelligent agent that helps ‘filter and track information’.

Suppose then, you have surfed the Web and found the sites with the best nuggets of information. Or rather than trawl in hope of finding, you have visited a site, like a page of Web links, that offers a directory of content services. You have marked the best places, signed up, and even paid for some. As a result, the Web sites start to feed their pages to the machine. They can do this in the background, when Internet traffic is less or when the ‘pushing’ site has a spare moment.

This will work exquisitely when the computer is switched on and has a permanent connection to the Internet. On an office network, it may be a dream: come in, sit down and see what is new. The screen will show the chosen ‘channels’ of information, filled with fresh content much like other media. There could be a horoscope in one channel, a tip of the day in one, a gizmo of the day in another. Presumably, the user decides what content goes to which channel.

To date a handful of companies, PointCast, Marimba, and BackWeb Technologies have been developing and selling their approaches to push technology. They have sold them to providers with something they can sell too. Those who crave for share prices, investment trends and market analyses have to buy. Those who hunger for sports, weather and so on might have been happy to digest the adverts that come free with it. As we have seen, those with space to sell – search engines in particular – are fuelled by advertising.

Today however, there is a proposal for a common standard for the pushing and delivery of content. The specification is at least in the hands of the World Wide Web committee. Pushing that forward is Microsoft and others. The content providers will be happy because with little expertise they can turn their Web sites into information channels. Perhaps the happiest partner is PointCast, whose ‘push’ system is due to become an embedded into Windows, which in turn will have that new version of Internet Explorer embedded in it. When that happens, and writing the future is risky, Netscape the leading browser had better have something smarter. But I’ll risk a prediction: one day everything on a computer will work best in something headed ‘Microsoft’. The name will be tattooed on every screen, every history book and even on your head. To beat the queues, I’d get one today.

And so it will be written into books, push-fed to every computer. ‘Webcasting’ – or broadcasting over the Web, did become real. No longer was there masses of material waiting to be grabbed, as in the old word meaning, it was literally broadcasted.

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