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techTALK

By Kevin S. Davis

It seems as though everyone nowadays has a Web site--from Tommy's House of Pizza and the Harvard Bookstore to thousands of newspapers and broadcasts. Sure, technology is great, but do I really need to know which video games line the walls of my local pizza hangout?

Design your page and the nebulous "they" will come. It doesn't matter how narrow the target audience is, the theory goes, because there will be someone out there interested in reading exactly what you're putting on-line.

This diversity can exist because the universal resource locators (URLs) which point to Web sites show no favoritism. It costs the end user nothing more to access an individual's home page or the Tommy's Web site than it does to bring up cnn.com or microsoft.com. Just name your destination, and it will appear on your monitor within moments.

The World Wide Web was originally designed to provide exactly this access to diverse information as a so-called "pull media, an individual retrieves whatever information they want on demand--they literally "pull" what they want onto their screen.

Older electronic media, such as television and radio, are "push media." The viewer, or listener, has control over which station they're going to listen, but that's it.

But there seems to be a real problem that's more and more troubling in this new world of information overload--reliability.

It does little to have access to millions of pages of information on-line if you can't trust it. How do you know that "Billie's On-line Newspaper is accurate? How can you tell if the authors follow the standards of journalism or even if they know what they are talking about?

While Internet users can, and do, access only certain sites. Those which are generally large and commercially-operated are more popular among users who are seeking reliable, up-to-the-minute information. Many of the most popular sites on the Web are those run by large media corporations such as Time-Warner, Ziff Davis and the New York Times.

For many specialized areas of interest, of course, individual home pages can be a great resource because they can focus on a narrow subject. Pages devoted to specific rock groups or authors often have a core constituency of devoted Web surfers who visit on a regular basis.

But when it comes to news, weather and the like, pull media just doesn't cut it for accuracy and timeliness. If there is still a role for traditional media providers on the Internet, it will lie in a successor to the World Wide Web--on-line push media.

Instead of focusing on interactivity and end-user choice, on-line push media outlets focus on the Internet's ability to deliver information quickly. The PointCast network (www.pointcast.com), for instance, delivers news updates several times an hour to your computer via special software.

The end-user still has more choice over what information is retrieved with on-line push media than with newspapers or television. In the case of PointCast, for instance, users can tell the software to give priority to stories on particular topics or display weather for certain cities.

But, in the end, people turn to media such as PointCast because they're willing to sacrifice some diversity in content in exchange for accuracy.

So a few years from now, you may find yourself turning to an entirely different Internet technology for the latest information about what's going on in the world around you.

--Kevin S. Davis is director of the HASCS Advanced Support Team and an independent computer consultant. His e-mail address is ksdavis@fas.harvard.edu.

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