Which Way Should Publishers 'Push'?

By: Steve Outing

"Push." It's undoubtedly the dominant buzz word in the interactive media world for 1997. Indeed, in the various news clipping services that I use to track developments in this industry, I've been seeing lots and lots of coverage of "push" technology for electronic publishing. But most of the articles I've been reading seem to be missing something important.

By "push," I mean simply the concept of delivering content to Internet users, rather than expecting them to visit a Web site to see desired content (the "pull" model). That Web site visitors don't remember to come back and visit a Web site regularly is a well documented problem. So, like the printed newspaper, the solution is to deliver the electronic news product to the consumer's virtual doorstep.

There are three primary thrusts in push publishing: simple text e-mail, HTML e-mail, and proprietary push technologies. The latter has been getting most of the attention in recent months, but the other two look to my eye to have the best chance of becoming the driving force in pushed electronic delivery.

Proprietary solutions

Pointcast started it all, offering up a model of pushing to consumers customized news in a screensaver presentation. To receive Pointcast news, you'll need to download its client software (and have a direct connection to the Internet, ideally) and choose a content channel. Following in Pointcast's wake came push systems from BackWeb and Intermind, both of which allow publishers to broadcast channels of information to subscribers who sign up to receive specific content. News typically is broadcast to subscribers during periods of inactivity on their PCs.

A new, similar entry is InCommon, with its free push news service called Downtown. Another one to watch is HeadLiner from Lanacom, which is a model similar to Pointcast, but without the limits on content that can be selected by the consumer. Then there are companies like Marimba, which has developed systems (Castanet Tuner and Bongo) that let businesses send customers and employees customized news services and software programs. All of these solutions for pushing content require the recipient of the information to download and install a piece of software -- a client receiver application that often works in concert with a client Web browser.

I think that these companies will succeed primarily in the business market, where sophisticated users will be willing to go to the trouble of downloading and setting up a new client application in order to receive customized content. But I don't believe they'll succeed in the broader consumer market, because setting up these systems is too much of a pain for many home consumers. Walk into a corporate environment, and you're likely to see Pointcast throughout the office (if the company IS department hasn't banned it for sucking up too much bandwidth of the office network). But you won't see it running on very many home computers.

HTML mail

I'm placing my bets on HTML e-mail to become the dominant standard used by publishers targeting a broad consumer audience. Netscape is leading the charge on this one, with its Inbox Direct program which already has dozens of content partners ready to send out customized information as HTML documents. The Netscape browser's mail feature can receive HTML files sent as e-mail, and the consumer sees them as though someone has delivered a Web page to them.

True adoption of this as a standard must wait, of course, until the most popular mail client software is capable of rendering HTML e-mail. E-mail applications like Eudora are expected to implement HTML viewing capability in upcoming releases. When that happens, publishers will have a near ideal situation, because 1) they're already publishing in HTML for their Web sites (pull) and now can use the same format for push; and 2) consumers won't have to download and install any special software, since what they're already using to read mail (whether a Web browser's mail capabilities or a stand-alone mail application) will work as is.

What about ASCII?

Last but not least, simple text-only e-mail will continue to be a strong tool in any publisher's push arsenal. As I reported in this column recently, the Christian Science Monitor is quite happy with text e-mail for its upcoming electronic delivery service, since much of its global target audience for the e-mail service has limited Internet access capabilities. Many other publishers report that text e-mail is sufficient for -- indeed preferred by -- its pushed content recipients.

At the Jerusalem Post in Israel, deputy-director of electronic publishing Derek Fattal says, "There is a definite audience for straight plain text." The Post has an e-mail edition that's mailed around the world, priced at $14.95 (U.S.) for three months. "We asked our subscribers if for the sake of reliability they would prefer to get the files as attachments," he says. "There was a strong majority against this. As a result we are sending straight plain ASCII text. Our subscribers appreciate the simplicity and speed involved and like to know that whatever happens, our daily packets end up on their computer."

The Post also has launched a pushed content service using BackWeb. For now that service is free, but requires the subscriber to download and install a large BackWeb client application. In the first month, 1,400 people signed up for the service. Fattal says there has been a "marginal" tail-off in e-mail edition subscriptions since the Post began pushing the BackWeb service.

I applaud the Post's strategy, for it serves two distinct audiences with its two pushed content services. There will long be a large part of the consumer audience that prefers -- or is limited to -- text e-mail. And there are those who must have multimedia content delivery, and are willing to jump through the hoops to configure their PCs to receive it.

My advice is to watch where the push movement goes in the coming year and react accordingly. It may be that one of the proprietary push companies leaps ahead of the others and becomes a viable pushed content medium. But I'm more bullish on HTML mail as the "next big thing." And no matter what happens, don't give up on text e-mail as a delivery medium. That last one may just surprise you.

Changes at NYT Information Services Group

The Information Services Group of the New York Times Co. is being split up into two segments, in a reorganization reflecting the blurring distinction between information disseminated on paper and that distributed by electronic means.

The part of the Information Services Group whose primary focus is repackaging and resale of the content of the New York Times newspaper -- Syndication Sales, the New York Times News Service, the Index/Times On-Line (which sells Times content to database services like Nexis and various online services), and TimesFax -- will now report to the newspaper and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr..

Those parts of Information Services that are separate and distinct from the newspapers -- Custom Publishing (which produces magazines for IBM, Blockbuster, Trump and others), the Business Development group and some administrative departments -- will remain as a separate corporate group, reporting to New York Times Co. vice president Len Forman

In a surprise move, Information Services Group president Jim Cutie is leaving the company following this reorganization. Cutie has been with the New York Times Co. for 16 years.


From business media tycoon Michael Bloomberg's keynote speech last Thursday at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show: We need to "produce new practical products that can be used by everyone -- not just the technologically inclined." Products of the future, he said, should match the functionality of a newspaper. "What is it about newspapers that keep people reading? There are two fundamental benefits -- a newspaper is a random access device, and it keeps readers informed. If our businesses are going to grow, we have to make our products more like a newspaper. The fact of the matter is that the public wants to see things when they want to see them. Video-on-demand, a digitally delivered product, is the way of the future -- a killer application."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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