In 1996, the Internet exploded into public consciousness as millions of us went out searching for the World Wide Web. In 1997, the Web is going to come looking for us.
The new catch phrase among Web developers is "push delivery." The idea: Rather than waiting for people to come to your Web site, find out what information they want and deliver it straight to their computers. This sort of thing has been available since the birth of networks, through E-mail, but it's mostly limited to boring text. The first large-scale effort to push rich, graphical content hit the scene early this year, when PointCast's PointCast Network (www. pointcast.com) distributed a free Windows screen saver that displays news, sports scores, stock prices, weather data, and, of course, lots of advertising.
CLUNKY. Since then, Intermind (www.intermind.com) has launched Communicator, a system that allows you to subscribe to information from any site running Intermind's server software. As new material is posted on those sites, it is automatically sent to your computer, where you can read it with your browser. In January, a startup called IFusion Com (www.ifu sion.com) plans to launch a service called ArrIve. The service will deliver "channels" of multimedia information--sports, music, entertainment, and others--directly to your browser. For people on networked computer systems, delivery just goes on in the background while your computer does other things.
All of these approaches share some common problems, though. For one thing, they require special software. You must load different software on your computer for each approach, and all of the programs are clunky. In addition, they all force you to stop what you're doing to examine the new information. In some cases you have to start up your browser. With PointCast, you have to go into screen-saver mode.
Push delivery should get a lot easier early next year, when Microsoft introduces Internet Explorer 4.0. Despite its name, which suggests it's a new version of Microsoft's browser, this free upgrade will include major changes in the way you use Windows 95 or Windows NT. One significant new piece is Active Desktop. This feature enables a networked Windows computer to accept material pushed out by Web servers and to display it right on the desktop, with no additional software or any action by the user beyond subscribing to information sources. Netscape Communications promises a similar feature in the Magellan browser that it is developing.
In its current configuration, which could well change as the product is tested, Active Desktop displays offer panels for three different sources of Web data. Microsoft, which has been busily reinventing itself as a content producer, clearly hopes that one panel will be filled with news from MSNBC, its joint venture with the broadcaster. Microsoft also hopes that corporations will install Active Desktop servers on their internal networks to put constantly updated company information on employees' screens.
The big flaw in all of these approaches is that they really only work well for people who are connected to networks full time. While it is possible to configure programs such as PointCast to dial out for updates, the spontaneity and immediacy get lost as you sit there waiting for your computer to plug into PointCast's computers. Eventually, cable modems, satellite minidishes, and other new technologies will bring full-time Internet connections to many homes. For now, however, the best solution may be wireless transmission.
One wireless product available today is the combination of the NewsCatcher receiver from Global Village Communications (800 736-4821) and the associated AirMedia Live information service. AirMedia uses one-way pager technology to broadcast news, sports, and other time-sensitive data to a pyramid-shaped receiver attached to your Windows PC. The $149 device comes with a year of basic service. For an extra $4.95 a month, which most users will probably want to pay, you get more frequent updates and regular stock market reports. Another $4 a month will bring you notification of new E-mail messages at your Internet-service provider or online service, though you will still have to log on to get the text of the messages.
FLUFF. I'm not very fond of the current AirMedia service. It offers limited customization and wastes precious air time to broadcast such fluff as horoscopes and trivia games. You can turn those off, but the bandwidth they take up could be used for more stock information. In addition, AirMedia's screen display is a jangle of brightly colored individual windows, one for news, another for stock quotes, and so on--each screaming for your attention. The same technology used with Microsoft's Active Desktop would give you similar information in a much cleaner and more useful design.
Right now, much of the content that is pushed out leaves a lot to be desired. News stories tend to be superficial, and business reports generally consist of little more than press releases. But with companies from Microsoft to Time Warner investing heavily in online content, this may not be a problem for much longer.