"Push media," a long-forgotten late-'90s Internet buzzword, is making a comeback on cell phones.
The notion of push was that users would want to have news, entertainment, and other information downloaded automatically to their computers, rather than have to surf from website to website to find what they need.
But the reality of push-buggy software, overloaded networks and in-your-face advertising rapidly soured users to "push" software from the likes of Microsoft, Netscape, and PointCast - a startup which turned down a reported $450 million buyout offer from News Corp. in 1997, only to get sold off for $7 million in 1999.
Now, though, cell-phone maker Motorola and some mobile-software startups are saying that pushing news stories and other on-the-go content to cell phones makes sense, and could help wireless carriers sell more data plans.
Surfing the Web on a cell phone today is a lot like surfing the Web was a decade ago - connections are poor, downloads are slow, and image quality is iffy. And if you wander out of an area with network coverage, you're knocked offline. That's why push has a role to play.
Onskreen, a San Francisco startup with operations in Mumbai, has rolled out a push program called Fusion that can be downloaded for free and runs on popular Nokia phones like those in the 6600 series, if the customer has signed up for a data plan, which typically adds $10 to $20 to a subscriber's monthly bill.
Onskreen's software first quizzes users on their interests - Do you like business news? Sports? - and then runs on the phone in the background, downloading stories using RSS, a popular technology for distributing feeds of news headlines and articles, blog posts, and other Web content. Onskreen's software reformats the feeds for display on a cell phone.
The next time a Fusion user looks at his phone, he'll see stories on topics based on the interests he indicated, and will be able to read them without waiting for them to download, even if he's located beyond network coverage, since the Fusion software has already downloaded them to his phone.
Onskreen currently offers 11 collections of RSS feeds, which it calls "plug-ins," for free, drawing on sites like Wired News, the New York Times's movie reviews, as well as CNNMoney.com. (Who knew? The company has no financial arrangement with CNNMoney - it just picks up the website's RSS feed, as can anyone.)
While push software on PCs clogged up networks, push software on cell phones makes sense, says Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin.
"Your phone has to constantly contact the network to let it know it's on in order to get calls," he explains, "That's a good time for it to retrieve information for you."
Because cell phone keypads are small, mobile Web browser software is awkward and cell-phone networks don't work everywhere, pulling news stories off the Web can be a frustrating experience for users. By contrast, says Golvin, reading stories that have been pushed to your phone in the background while you're doing other things is relatively painless.
For wireless operators, getting customers to sign up for and use wireless-data plans is a major goal, says Golvin, and anything that makes wireless data easier to use is a plus. While the software is currently free for consumers, Onskreen plans to have wireless carriers pay his company a small cut of data-subscription fees generated through use of Fusion, says Onskreen CEO Hansmeet Sethi. The company has already signed up AirTel, an Indian wireless carrier, for a test, and is hoping to sign up a U.S. carrier soon.
Motorola, meanwhile, has developed its own push system called Screen3 that first launched in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and has been available in the U.S. on some Cingular phones, including the popular Razr model, since last November. Like Onskreen's Fusion, Motorola's software collects content and pushes it to phones when they're connected to the network but not in use.
And then there's London-based startup Celltick, whose Livescreen software, like Fusion and Screen3, also downloads information to phones in the background based on user preferences. Celltick claims to have 23 million users on 20 cell-phone carriers.
Celltick's Livescreen also streams "teaser" alerts to idling phones that turn the screen on and display freshly downloaded content, hoping to draw users in even when they're not using the phone. But for those who remember PointCast as an aggressive, intrusive piece of software that took over their computers at inopportune times, those alerts may be too much of a reminder of the bad old days of push.
Onskreen's Sethi says he considered a similar feature but decided to skip it, lest users feel like his company is taking over the phone.
"The last thing we want to do is make a user feel like we've messed up their phone," he says.
Don't push too hard, in other words - lest users push back.