Todd Johnson: When push comes to shove

Todd Johnson of Backweb still believes 'push' technology can be a successful way of delivering information over the web..
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The Independent Online

The world is governed by fashion, and the internet is no exception. An early trend was for "push", a search technology which proactively delivered information to your PC without you having to hunt for it.

The world is governed by fashion, and the internet is no exception. An early trend was for "push", a search technology which proactively delivered information to your PC without you having to hunt for it.

In the mid-1990s, dozens of Net companies were busy building "push solutions" for users who liked the idea of an e-equivalent to waitress service. Perhaps the most prominent was PointCast, which delivered nice-to-know lifestyle information; another was Backweb, founded in 1995 by three Israelis who had developed a knowledge of Internet Protocol (IP) networks while working in the secret service. A third was Marimba, headed by the the charismatic Kim Polese.

Todd Johnson, who joined Backweb last year as its vice-president of marketing, says: "The idea was to use an advanced set of networking capabilities to build a bandwidth-smart delivery capability, originally targeted at the consumer space. Push at that time was a hot thing. Marimba gave it a lot of publicity, and it became the user-centric model on the internet. Push was one of those buzzwords that people threw at venture capitalists."

Then things started to go wrong. Networks became clogged as pushed advertising piggy-backed on "information". Users began to realise that they could access the very same thing on their own Yahoo! homepage. "Hewlett Packard was one of the first companies to come out and publicly ban the use of PointCast within its corporate network," recalls Johnson. "The push market started to turn in on itself and that caused quite a shake-up. Push was nothing special at the time. It was not very filtered and the delivery mechanisms were immature and caused disruption.

"Back then, the user experience wasn't good. Things took time to download and they really bogged PCs down. User pain started to increase as the value decreased."

As confidence in push plummeted, Backweb stopped spending on advertising and diverted funding into research and development, and into direct sales. At around the same time, Johnson, now 37, was heading up marketing at Silicon Graphics. Before that, he had worked full-time at Hewlett Packard for eight years, for half of which he was an undergraduate also studying for a marketing degree.

Looking for a challenge in 1998, he came across Backweb, which presented him with a colossal task: how to reinvent the discredited push brand. It helped that he had always believed in the technology.

"One of the greatest frustrations in my career was at Silicon Graphics, where I had just done a significant repositioning and had invested incredible amounts of money in video-conferencing to our sales force. I took a quick tour of the world to see how they were doing and found that less than 20 per cent of the sales force were using the new materials. They understood the story if they watched the video broadcast, but only 50 per cent of them had seen it and even they were using the wrong slides," he recalls.

"In that situation, with our technology at Backweb, a sales person would get their laptop updated regularly with new corporate presentations, price lists, customer success stories. All of that is done without any time spent searching for websites and downloading content on a 56k modem. A five or six megabyte file can take 20 minutes to download - that's forever to a salesperson."

Repositioning push as a business rather than a consumer application was an uphill struggle. "Push got overhyped in its early days and as the technology started to mature, it saw an early demise. Not only did I have to create a brand for the company, but I also had to re-create the category. Backweb had gone away from using the word 'push' because of these perceptions. I said we needed to go back to it.

"At one point there were 40 companies focusing on push: by the mid-1990s there was only ourselves and Marimba. Trying to create a new category with only two players is tough. We were better off going back and saying: 'Remember all the really good stuff about push? That's us'."

He is beginning to see the tide turn. Last year, Backweb turned over $23m; Q1 revenues this year are up to $9m. Its Polite Push technology, which works via interaction between client software and the server, rather than through e-mail, is what Johnson calls the "grown-up version" of push.

One of its merits, he says, is its sensitivity. Backweb will only push across tiny packets of information when the network is quiet. He suggests: "You might search for a Web page and read it for 30 seconds and there's nothing crossing the wire at that stage. We ship stuff across an empty highway."

Users see a postage stamp-sized icon flashing on the PC screen when a critical file arrives. If it's not picked up, Backweb's escalation feature forwards it to a second-choice device, like a mobile phone.

Recently, Backweb acquired Mobix Communications, a provider of platforms for wireless data solutions, and an integrated service is planned for launch in November. "When we bought Mobix we got very scalable scripting that allows us to build interfaces to different carrier networks very quickly. It's a modular approach that makes interfacing your solution a really simple process." It is also marketing its push application server as a platform for companies to build their own extensions.

"What people want is integration between internet and wireless. Push gives information when they need it by a filter and delivery mechanism. I think that's an ideal model for the wireless world," says Johnson.

Backweb publicises itself as "push for e-business solutions" but is now dipping a toe back into the consumer market. "We have been very careful about getting back into it. We have focused on areas where we solve significant user pain," Johnson says.

The bigger debate is about the convergence of push across users' lives, whether in business or pleasure. "We will get to the point where information finds people instead of people finding information, but we don't want to get to a point where you feel like you can never get away."

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