Push technology / alerting services

First published in Online Currents – Vol.18 Issue 4, May 2003

Theres just no pleasing anybody  we all complain that we have too much information, but then keep seeking more. David Skyrme (http://www.skyrme.com/updates/u10.htm#push ) explains this information paradox by pointing out that while we want less junk, we long for more relevant information. Push technology  in which information is automatically sent to users according to pre-defined profiles  claims to be the ideal way of providing the relevant information.

The earliest use of push technology was for sending updates of new bibliographic references on specified topics to library users. Push technology is now used to offer the following types of information:

  • general news alerts, providing the major news stories of the day.
  • specific news alerts, providing information pertinent to a set profile (e.g. all the news on the HIH court case).
  • specific subject alerts, including traditional library SDI (current awareness) services from bibliographic databases or table of contents services, and commercial services in specialised areas, e.g. beverages.
  • specific real-time data, including stock prices, sports results and traffic information.
  • company information, and company work to be done.

There is also a narrower sense of the term push, which includes the use ofspecific technologies to send the targeted information. These technologies provide continual updates in displays such as tickers (narrow bands on the screen) or screen savers, and require the user to have specialised software. Push technology can deliver information via e-mail, pager, telephone, and SMS (short messaging system) messages to mobile phones.

This article will discuss push technology in general, with some examples of the more specialised sense. It will focus on the delivery of content (rather than references) and on delivery of information of general interest rather than subject specialist information.

The experimental Google Glossary site (http://labs.google.com/glossary) is an excellent source of in-use definitions of jargon terms.

Push Technology
Definitions of push technology (in the narrower sense) include the fact that it is a data distribution methodology using persistent connections, it can display information in a small window (called a ticker) at the bottom of the screen, it can be used to deliver text, graphics, sound and even software, and users need special software to receive pushed content. One critic suggested that push was short for pushy.

Webcasting and Narrowcasting
Webcasting is sometimes used as a synonym for push technology, but seems to be moving to a niche meaning specifically related to audio and video narrowcasting. Narrowcasting means sending information to a select group of people, as opposed to broadcasting, which is accessible to anyone.

Alerting Services
Alerting services overlap with the broader definition of push technology, in that they cover the sending of information to users according to set interest profiles. Alerting services are often news-based, but can be for subject-specific information or company data. They also give users the choice to go on and find more depth (as do some push services).

The Technology
Push technology, in the narrower sense, includes the software to send information and software on the clients desktop to receive and display it at all times. Push has had a short life, with many vendors going out of business. See the detailed table of companies by David Strom athttp://www.strom.com/places/t4a.html (July 2000). In 1998 Strom wrote: Push technology has gone from hype to hopeless so fast that many of you might have missed its latest rebirth (strom.com/awards/101.html).

Although replaced with e-mail in many instances, push technology is still alive and well in some areas.

Infogate (previously PointCast)
PointCast was an innovator in the use of push technology to supply news headlines to desktops. It later joined with Launchpad Technologies to make a new company called EntryPoint. Late in 2000, EntryPoint merged with Internet Financial Network to form Infogate (http://www.infogate.com ). The original PointCast service to individuals was free, but Infogate now charges (Barbara Quint in:http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb020624-2.htm ).

As well as providing a paid news alerting service of its own, Infogate provides media companies with the software to create subscription-based personal information sources. Their technology allows users to read, view and interact with filtered news and information, using a persistent desktop ticker, interactive screen devices and/or e-mail. The SmartScreen provides a large display, while the ticker sits at the top of the screen, leaving working space below. The system can be synchronised with existing personalised services such as stock portfolios. Content includes company-supplied information, newswires and over 2,000 other sources, and is filtered for the user according to personalised criteria. An extra feature is that Critical information is never missed because alerts can Find and Follow the customer from the PC desktop to e-mail accounts, and even wireless devices. Theres no getting away from this information.

Intervoice (http://www.intervoice-brite.com ) specialises in speech-enabled alerts to mobile devices, including cellular telephones, pagers and wireless PDAs. Templates can be set up to send different amounts of information to different devices, e.g. detailed content for HTML e-mails versus short text messages for SMS-enabled phones or pagers. Alerts can also be delivered to APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) for integration into other applications.

Snippets software (http://www.snippets.com ) reserves space on a customers desktop for live information feeds.

Netscape Netcaster
Netscape Netcaster (http://wp.netscape.com/communicator/netcaster/v4.0/index.html) is part of Communicator for Windows 95, Windows NT, Macintosh Power PC, and Unix AIX. It delivers intranet and Internet information constantly to users desktops. Users can anchor content channels similar to TV channels  to their desktops in order to create a Webtop environment with the content they are interested in.

Full (Non-Specific) News Alerting Services
Full news alerting services send you regular messages summarising the news headlines, with links to more detailed information on the Web. Choice of service depends on cost (many are free), range and quality of news sources, regularity, and appropriateness of the information sent.

News Limited has an online news site giving access to their papers, e.g. The Australian. To subscribe to their News by email service bringing the latest news, finance, sports and entertainment headlines, follow the News by email link at the bottom of the left-hand navigation, or at the bottom of stories that you view at http://www.news.com.au . The e-mailed alerts are brief, but provide links to more detailed information. You can choose whether to receive the e-mail in HTML or text format, and whether you would like to receive other announcements from News Limited Web sites. You can also choose the frequency of e-mails (breaking news, headlines morning and evening, evening only, and weekly roundup of the main news, finance, or entertainment). You cant select news on specified topics only.

News also offers three more specific free e-mail services: PING, an IT newsletter, FOX SPORTS, and CareerOne.

I have subscribed to both Newspulse and PING for a few months and find they give me just the right amount of news every day.

Other News Services
Excite (http://news.excite.com ) offers a similar news alerting service to News Limited, and news can also be pulled from http://news.com.au,http://news.excite.com, http://www.abc.net.au (includes radio and TV), and the beta news trial at http://news.google.com among others.

In a report on Google News (http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb021007-1.htm ) Marydee Ojala said that Google News prides itself on being extraordinarily up-to-date. Pat Sabosik from Factiva responded (http://www.infotoday.com/it/dec02/letters.htm ; scroll to the bottom) with the claim that Google News time stamps are not very reliable (it is hard to know whether a page has been updated, or just had a minor change made to it), and stated that Factiva provides the full text of Dow Jones, Reuters and Associated Press news wires minutes after they appear in real-time services. Ojala acknowledged that when it comes to wire-service news, Factiva has an edge on just about every other service (http://www.infotoday.com/it/dec02/letters.htm ; scroll to the bottom).

At http://www.crayon.net you can design your own newspaper  setting up a news page with links for the information that you would like to read. The links stay the same, but the content they lead to changes daily. The content comes from selected online newsletters, and the service is free. MyYahoo (http://my.yahoo.com ) also lets you personalise content for your Yahoo My Front Page. You can choose from a number of content types including portfolios, saved searches, weather, headlines and horoscopes (has the Internet increased work for astrologists, or just spread their findings further?). If you select headlines, you can choose world news or top stories, sourced from AP (Associated Press) or Reuters, as well as a number of European sources.

Sam Vaknins article News agencies on the Web (http://www.freepint.com/issues/250702.htm#feature ) provides an excellent overview of general news services including:

  • international, national, regional and specialty news agencies (newswires),
  • content aggregators and syndicators,
  • aggregators and distributors of press releases, and
  • wire services provided by individual media companies (e.g. ABC).

Specific News Alerting Services
As well as the general news services that send you a summary of all the days news, there are other services that send you all the news on topics that you have specified. These are often used by companies to find mentions of their own company and industry in the broadcast (TV and radio) and print media. They depend on human (or occasionally automated) indexing and abstracting, and are normally paid for (all of the examples below are fee-based). To choose between these services, consider their news coverage and focus, other information provided (e.g. stock data), the quality of indexing (and therefore the relevance of the information you receive), other services offered (e.g. media analysis and public relations support), and country of availability.

ABIX: Australian Business Intelligence
ABIX gives you access to abstracts of articles from over 150 key business and industry sources. The abstracts link to full text (http://www.abix.com.au/newsfeeds-main.htm ). The content is indexed and summarised by information analysts, using a number of category systems including ANZSIC (Australia and New Zealand Standard Industry Classification).

Dialog NewsEdge
Dialog NewsEdge (http://www.dialog.com/products/productline/newsedge.shtml ) offers filtered news and information including daily e-mail alerts, stock portfolios, company tracking, and the ability to search against a pre-filtered database of over 100,000 stories. NewsEdge Live provides real-time news scrolling across the desktop.

In June 2002 Factiva launched Factiva Alerts, which supplies near real-time news headlines to enterprise clients. Barbara Quint (http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb020624-2.htm ) comments The company indicated that it expects only a narrow subset of an enterprises user base to need or want the service.

Factiva Alerts uses downloadable client software with instant messaging technology to scroll continuously updating headlines across the screen. Clicking on the headlines retrieves the full text. The headlines are chosen to match personal or group interest profiles on specific industries, companies, topics or keywords. Content for Factiva Alerts comes from news sources in Factivas collection, including the Dow Jones and Associated Press news wires and some daily newspapers.

Figure 1: Media Monitors Home Page

Media Monitors
Media Monitors has over 3,500 government and corporate customers. It provides alerts via e-mail or CD-ROM whenever the media comments on a specific company, product, or industry (http://www.mediamonitors.com.au ). The conference unit records and transcribes major media events, press conferences, doorstop interviews, launches, lunches, AGMs, briefings and seminars, so you receive more than you would find in the daily newspaper. Media Monitors also offers a fee-based research service using global commercial databases and media analysis.

Rehame (http://www.rehame.com.au ) monitors print and electronic media in metropolitan, suburban and regional areas of Australia. They provide live alerts to breaking news, and summaries every 30 minutes, using artificial intelligence key-word technology backed by 18 years of human experience. News can be e-mailed or posted direct to an intranet site.

Real-Time Information Services (e.g. Stock Prices, Traffic Details)
This category includes clearly-defined data that changes continually. Subscribers to specific services receive regular updates on their mobile phones about areas of interest such as stocks and shares (including price changes and volume of sales), weather, sports scores, and flight information. Real-time information services have become one of the most popular SMS (Short Messaging System) applications. They may soon also be able to pull private information, such as personal agendas and addresses,out of the users private database (hopefully after privacy issues have been dealt with).

Reuters Investor
In 1850, Paul Julius von Reuter began his news agency sending stock prices by carrier pigeon; now Reuters Investor subscribers receive investment information by e-mail, SMS, and active voice call systems (http://rfs.reuters.com/investor/public/power/alerts.htm ).

AskPronto is a US-based service that delivers alerts about news, weather, finance, sports, entertainment and stocks by SMS. Users can also make phone queries relating to the interest areas they have specified, and can talk to real people who act as concierges, helping with driving directions, restaurant reservations, and so on. Alerts can be personalised to some extent (e.g. choosing specific sports), but once you have chosen categories you cant skip them on the phone, but must listen to everything in one group before moving on to the next. SMS alerts are often so short they are almost meaningless (e.g. Panda dies as a complete message). David Berlind reviewed AskPronto and decided that the service was not worth US $20 per month to him (http://www.zdnet.com/anchordesk/stories/story/0,10738,2878899,00.html).

TVMobile is using Digital Video Broadcast (DVB) technology to deliver up-to-date information to commuters on buses and ferries in Singapore. Information being broadcast includes financial data, news updates, weather reports and entertainment information (http://corporate.mediacorpsingapore.com/tvmobile/index.htm ).

Push Technology for Company Information
One of the earliest applications of push technology was in workflow systems, sending work to the desktop so it is there when needed, and the worker doesnt have to seek out the next job. Push is now used for the distribution of company information of all types.

Autonomy is a knowledge management system that features automatic categorisation of both content within the system, and of the interests of users on the system. The Knowledge Update component of the software monitors company data sources and alerts users to any new information of interest, based on their profiles. The data sources include file systems, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, databases, intranet and Internet sites, and newsfeeds, and the alerts can be sent via e-mail, fax, pager, or push technology (http://www.topic.com.au/products/autonomy/Autonomy_EB_Final2.pdf).

Advantages of Push Technology
Push technology is a great idea because:

  • you get information sent direct to your desktop (or phone, or pager) without any effort after the initial request has been set up. With true push technology you can receive updated information at any time.
  • you get information targeted to your needs and interests as defined by you (or as derived from usage information by your computer).
  • you often get summarised information, with links to more detail if required.
  • you can get more efficient delivery of data overnight or as a background operation.

In the future, push technology will become more interactive, and youll be able to respond to the information being sent (e.g. to change a flight after being informed of a cancellation).

Disadvantages of Push Technology
Push technology often doesnt work well because:

  • information overload makes it hard to find the time to read the alerts.
  • it is hard to write filters that deliver only relevant and important information, so, to get most of the relevant information, users have to put up with a lot of information that they dont really need.
  • the continual arrival of small chunks of information distracts people from analysing the more detailed resources they need to do their work. Also, pushed headlines in tickers can be distracting and take over a chunk of your screen.
  • you have to delete or organise e-mailed information on your hard drive or intranet.
  • all this just-in-case information that may never be used clogs the Internet and is a big load on already slow systems. Push technology demands high bandwidth, and the original Internet protocols were developed for small messages being passed through slow links. The most common protocols are not designed to fully exploit the faster backbones we have now. (From push technology, new applications will emerge 23 February, 1998: http://www.kmworld.com/publications/magazine; search for push).
  • there are privacy issues  youre not sure you want your company automatically analysing your reading patterns to set up your profiles, or push technology services recording what you have read of the information they have sent you. In addition, it has been discovered recently that push features in Internet messaging may allow a third party to push information to a users handset, telling the device to dial the number of a Web service, which could be billable to the innocent party. (http://www.infoworld.com/articles/hn/xml/02/12/04/021204hnpanasonic.xml).

See also David Stroms article for some of the disadvantages of push technology from the point of view of the information provider and network manager (http://strom.com/awards/101.html ).

Few dedicated Internet users would not be using some form of pushed information (in its broadest sense). However, for many, push technology will be adding to their information problems, not relieving them. If this sounds like you, try some of these alternatives to push (suggested by David Skyrme: http://www.skyrme.com/updates/u10.htm ):

  • read the paper on the way to work.
  • subscribe to an e-mail newsletter that focuses on your information needs (most push channels are fairly broad-based conventional media; this alternative is still push in the broader sense).
  • rely more on pull (e.g. go to a news site when you want the news, instead of having it come to you all the time).
  • leave information gathering to a specialist knowledge centre.
  • accept that there is some information that you can do without.

All references were checked on 24 March 2003.