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Keep On Pushin’

Friday, January 15th, 2016 by

gpfiGregg Petch’s first implementation of push technology was a real pushover. As CIO of the Metropolitan Regional Information System, one of the nation’s largest multiple listing services for the real estate industry, he needed a simple application to send IS updates to the help desk. Petch figured he’d need about two weeks to install and work out any kinks in Lanacom Inc.’s Headliner product. Surprisingly, the rollout took just two days.

Now, the head of IT is tackling a more formidable challenge–tying together BackWeb Technologies Inc.’s push technology with an Oracle Corp. Web server and a custom browser to deliver real estate information to MRIS’ 30,000 member agents. Among Petch’s many tasks: using Visual Basic to write custom SQL statements to an Oracle database from BackWeb’s search engine. You’ll forgive Petch if he begs off providing an exact date for the completion of this summer project.

Petch’s efforts will no doubt be watched closely by his fellow ITers. As push moves from beta sites into the real world, CIOs are looking for concrete results to determine if they should join the game. “It’s wait and see what the other guy does,” says Burt Weatherford, a network manager for Applied Materials Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., which is in the early stages of using McAfee Associates Inc.’s SecureCast to push anti-virus updates to user desktops. But those on the sidelines won’t have to wait long. Several companies, from Ascend Communications Inc. to Toronto Dominion Bank, have recently completed or are putting the finishing touches on push implementations.

Some 12 percent of companies with intranets have already deployed push, according to a new survey by Zona Research and IntelliQuest.

However, as with any new technology, the people paying for push have yet to venture beyond rudimentary applications. Most are focusing on improving communications with employees, customers and business partners. Another group aims to boost productivity–from low-paid help desk workers to highly compensated sales reps and financial advisers.

These early pioneers say push technologies have generally met their expectations. Many boast that they spent less money and time on implementations than anticipated. But at least one anonymous beta tester says he needs to see more robust technologies before he’ll open his wallet. And those doing mission-critical applications aren’t even considering push technologies from the gaggle of widely hyped startups. They’re sticking with proven vendors such as 12-year-old The Information Bus Co. Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., which developed its own version of the technology long before “push” became a part of the popular lexicon.

At your service

Improving customer service was the primary catalyst for seeking out push at several companies, including MRIS and Epson America Inc. Epson, a Torrance, Calif., printer maker, wanted a simple application to notify customers of changes on its Web site, such as new product announcements, awards, driver updates and sales promotions.

Epson replaced an outdated listserv application with Intermind Corp.’s Global Publisher tool and Intermind Communicator client software. The makeover was relatively painless. Installing Intermind took about an hour: Webmaster Alex Nathanson loaded the 4MB Global Publisher on a 75MHz Pentium PC running Windows 95, without installing any software on his Web server. To get updates from Epson, users simply download free Intermind client software. (They fill out a profile saying what sort of info they want, and Intermind shoots back brief notes with hot links to the Epson Web site.) Nathanson declined to reveal the cost for his particular installation, but Intermind, of Seattle, charges $1,500 for a Global Publisher license for fewer than 500 subscribers per channel and $10,000 for more than 500 subscribers.

Nathanson couldn’t be happier with the results. Posting updates now takes about 5 minutes, as opposed to several hours or days with the listserv. About 2,000 users have signed up for the service, which went live in March. The hit rate on Epson’s home page (www.epson.com) is about the same, but the number of visits is increasing, suggesting that people are using the site more efficiently, Nathanson says.

MRIS needed both a simple and robust push solution, so it bought two–each addressing the support needs of different constituencies. For its 55-person help desk, the listing service purchased Lanacom’s Headliner, to help make the desk, which handles about 38,000 calls a month, more efficient and responsive. If one of MRIS’ Internet POPs (points of presence) goes down, the desk is flooded with calls from agents who have been booted off the online service. Prior to Headliner, a help desk rep couldn’t give a disgruntled caller any help, because he or she rarely knew what the problem was. Now, the reps see a streaming ticker on their PCs that alerts them to a technical problem with a POP and tells where to point the affected user.

This summer, MRIS plans to push out the more complex project. Using BackWeb’s eponymous push technology, member real estate agents will be able to log on to MRIS and create profiles for each of their customers. The system will then query a database of prospective homes and push those that fit buyer profiles to the real estate agent. It gets even cooler: Since real estate agents tapping into MRIS are using standard Web browsers, BackWeb will push back HTML documents, photos, even videos, says Eric Beser, vice president of engineering for Targeted Multimedia Inc., an Owings Mills, Md., VAR working on the project.

MRIS CEO Dale Ross figures the BackWeb deployment will cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” But it’s worth it, because it will make MRIS members, who pay $35 per month for the online service, more efficient. “Realtors don’t have the time to go and look for technology,” Ross says. “It’s up to us to look at the cutting edge.”

If presenting a $200,000 proposal to your CEO makes your stomach sour, consider taking another tack: Pitch push as a cost-cutter. Consider Ascend’s implementation of Diffusion Inc.’s IntraExpress. Ascend expects the push product to allow it to eliminate most mass mailings to VARs, an expense that averages about $35,000 for a new product rollout. Les Sparrey, director of VAR channel marketing for the Alameda, Calif., company, figures IntraExpress will pay for itself in less than a year.

Ironically, Sparrey was not drawn to push because of cost savings. He was more concerned about strong anecdotal evidence that Ascend’s 100 VARs–and their 1,300 sales and support reps–were not reading reams of expensive mailings about new products. So he went in search of a product that delivered the same information to VARs in any form they wanted, from E-mail to faxes to pager notifications. IntraExpress was the only product he found that could meet all those requirements.

Apps on demand

Only a small number of companies are actually pushing applications to desktops, although that’s one of the most touted features of push, particularly Marimba Inc.’s Castanet. One of the few companies willing to talk about its use of Castanet is Wired Digital Inc. (formerly Hotwired), the San Francisco online arm of Wired magazine. Ed Anuff, director of product management, says he was driven to purchase a $25,000 Castanet Transmitter because Wired Digital’s Talk.Com Java application turned out to be more of a resource hog than anticipated. So Wired Digital created a smaller Java version of the service and a more robust Java app that is downloaded through a Castanet channel and viewed with a free Castanet Tuner.

The beauty of Castanet is that users simply download the app once–instead of launching it every time they sign on. More importantly, Wired Digital can transparently improve the application, making bug fixes or other changes, without bothering users.

“Users don’t have to worry about it, and that’s very important because of the challenges of Internet time,” Anuff says.

Push startups may be getting their fair share of brand-name customers for basic applications, but few have yet to land a mission-critical implementation. Users in that arena just can’t afford to take any risk. That’s the case with TD Securities Inc., of Toronto, which is in the final stages of a project to push select data out to its traders. TD had outgrown its 5-year-old system, which lacked a customizable user interface and didn’t update pages as quickly as newer technologies. “When markets begin to move quickly, you could potentially miss a trade or mis-price a trade if there is a delay of 10 to 15 seconds,” says Steve Tennyson, director of systems and technology for TD, a subsidiary of Toronto Dominion Bank of Canada.

When TD went shopping for solutions, it only looked at companies with a track record in financial services. “It has to be a proven technology because it has to scale for a large number of users,” says Tennyson. “And, because it is mission-critical, it has to have a strong support organization behind it.”

It was no small factor that the product TD chose, TIBCO’s Market Sheet for Windows, was already being used by four of Canada’s five big banks. TIBCO, a division of Reuters Holdings plc, makes software that has been incorporated into push offerings from about a dozen developers, including BackWeb, Diffusion and IBM’s Lotus Development Corp. division.

With TIBCO’s TibLink software, market data and stock quotes from Reuters and Tele-Rate are piped into TD’s servers and distributed to 350 Pentium desktops, where each user sets up a custom view with Market Sheet for Windows. For example, a trader can create a graph for the U.S. dollar that dynamically changes as currency rate data streams in.

Ultimately, Tennyson expects the system will save TD money because its improved user interface and faster updates will increase productivity, he says.

The skeptics

Despite all the hype, not everyone is wild about push. “It’s just not on the lips of my clients, who are among the top 20 [financial, insurance and energy] companies in the Fortune 500,” says Chris Dallas-Feeney, a partner in the strategic technologies group for Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., in New York. “They’re talking about doing secure financial transactions, public key encryption, getting customers access to relevant information through extranets.”

Others say the technology needs to mature. Mitch Hadley, vice president of strategic technology for Nations Bank, in Charlotte, N.C., ran a pilot for Wayfarer Communications Inc.’s Incisa product for about four months but closed the project last month. Incisa and the other push products on the market don’t have a fine-enough filter to make them truly useful, Hadley contends.

You’ll hear the same from Hewlett-Packard Co. CIO Robert Walker, who commands a 100,000-desktop intranet. His IT organization is looking at various push technologies but has no plans for a wide-scale deployment. “The challenge you have is trying to push information to knowledge workers,” Walker says. “How do you figure out exactly what they need at one point in time?” The only solution he sees at the moment is to create a staff of “editors” who can act as a secondary filter to refine the content pushed to knowledge workers.

With so many push implementations just getting off the ground, it will likely take time to get substantial feedback from users. Only then will we know if push is really a “pushover” or yet another technology that promised more than it could deliver.

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