A year ago, "push" technology was all the rage. A startup called PointCast Inc. had hit on a clever way to take the work out of the Web. Instead of spending hours on the Net, PointCast let you select the Web sites and topics that pique your interest--and then zapped the info to your PC. Dozens of push companies sprang up, and the Web, it seemed, would become a lot like TV.
A year later, push is indeed pervasive--but not in the way it was first envisioned. Many Web sites let you opt to have content sent to you, but it's often limited to simple E-mail alerts when something is new. Instead, most of the push action has been corraled into the latest browsers from Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. The idea behind both is to let you select from prepackaged "channels"--basically, Web sites that have been formatted for push delivery. The channels can be downloaded for later viewing offline, or they might display stock quotes or news headlines in a little window on your desktop.
AWKWARD. Netscape's $39 Navigator 4.0 comes with a program called Netcaster that contains channels from a long list of content partners, including ABC News, CBS SportsLine, and CNET. ABC is exclusive to Netcaster, but SportsLine and CNET can also be found on Microsoft's lineup. A key advantage of Navigator is that it runs on many operating systems, including UNIX and Windows 3.1. But Navigator has its drawbacks. Netcaster must be launched separately from the browser each time you use it, which makes it somewhat awkward. And I found the channels hard to set up.
In contrast, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 is closely integrated with its Windows 95 operating system and doesn't require the extra step. Once you load the free IE 4.0, it immediately takes over your screen, installing a new IE toolbar and channels, including MSNBC and Disney. Since they're right on your opening screen, channels are a snap to set up. If you use Windows 95 or NT, it makes for a smoother experience. (Microsoft also is testing versions of IE 4.0 for UNIX and Windows 3.1.)
For busy executives, push can be a great convenience. Cliff Reeves, a Lotus Development Corp. executive, uses IE 4.0 to have his favorite Web reading, including Economist.com, sent to his laptop. That way, when he travels, he can pull up The Economist, complete with two layers of links, and read it on an airplane--without being connected to the Net.
The technology does have its downside. You can easily end up bombarded with E-mail alerts and dueling channels. And if you choose to have pages downloaded to your hard drive, it can clutter up your hard drive. PointCast, for example (now an IE channel as well as a standalone service), suggests you reserve 10 megabytes. That's on top of the 16 Mb needed for the new browsers.
In the office, too many channels being piped into a company's server can bog down the network. After a corporate backlash, PointCast devised a version that sends Web content once to a company's central server, rather than having each employee's PC go through the corporate firewall to fetch new data.
There's a more ominous threat: Viruses or even programs that can peek into your files can land on your PC if you aren't careful. Some of the Netcaster channels prompted a window to pop up warning that the content was "highly risky." A good antivirus program provides some protection.
Finally, use common sense. All of the push purveyors allow you to control basics such as how often information is updated and how many levels of hyperlinks are included. Stick to sites without lots of external links, and even then, go no more than two or three levels deep. "If you download three links on Yahoo!, you download the world," says Reeves. And who needs that on a laptop?