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Features - Staying Current with Push Technology

By Gary Teal, Published on November 1, 1997

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Gary Teal is a Technology Strategy Consultant with the LEXIS-NEXIS National Center for Law and Technology. Gary has a degree in Computer
Science and has worked in law firm automation since 1985. He was Manager of Information Systems for the Washington Office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius for six years. Gary joined LEXIS-NEXIS last December, and is based in Washington, D.C.

It’s difficult, in a discipline defined by constant change, to tell the difference between the usual parade of new product versions and an honest-to-goodness new idea – one that changes the way we work. I believe that Push Technology – the notion that useful information can be delivered automatically ("pushed") to you so you don’t have to pro-actively search for ("pull") useful information – is not a fad or a neat feature added to existing products, but a real paradigm shift in the way we gather and use information.

Technologies come and go constantly. Every product goes through the same stages of life. First someone has an Idea that strikes most as being useless or even dangerous (carphones circa 1960). When a prototype is created, it becomes a New Toy for the Rich (carphones circa 1970). When more people come in contact with this new technology, but don’t have one yet, it’s an Impolite Gadget (think of cell phones in restaurants circa 1988). Suddenly this gadget becomes a Readily Available Commodity – lots of brands and models (cell phones 1995). Then, magically, it becomes an Indispensable Business Tool (was this two years ago or next year?), ubiquitous and expected! Of course, at some point we’ll have little Dick Tracy communicators in our wristwatches, and the bulky devices we’re using now for portable telephones will be a Smithsonian Exhibit. Still, in the end, we’re talking about a continuum of telephone technology that started with Bell a century ago. Before the telephone you couldn’t just talk to someone unless you physically met with them, and they couldn’t bother you without getting past your secretary or your butler or even just a closed door.

Mentioning butlers reminds us that being extremely rich has always been convenient. Today, having the resources of a large law firm or a large inheritance means that you can have a staff of expert librarians sift through the unimaginable avalanche of available information and bring you only the interesting stuff. But more of us are "knowledge workers" than ever before. The velocity of business is much greater than ever before. It simply isn’t possible to have enough manual researchers to meet everyone’s needs. These forces make the emergence of Push technology necessary. The availability of fast computers, combined with a network connecting virtually all of us, make the emergence of Push technology possible.

I don’t want to oversell this technology. Telephones don’t replace face-to-face meetings. Computers don’t replace librarians. Push has been a big deal for more than a year now, and products like PointCast popularized the notion but didn’t solve the world’s problems. A lot of press suggested that Push was uniformly evil. Certainly the word itself is unfortunate. I have two young children, and the word Push conjures images of skinned knees or even heroin addictions. Famous columnists have equated Pull with democracy and free will and Push with Orwell and Advertising. But it’s just an immature field in my opinion. We’re seeing the Model T version of Push technology today.

Today, having the resources of a large law firm or a large inheritance means that you can have a staff of expert librarians sift through the unimaginable avalanche of available information and bring you only the interesting stuff.
Today, no one expects you to be familiar with the contents of hundreds of publications, much less within days or hours of their publication. But Push products allow us, for the first time in history, to sift through all of this material for the name of our client’s business or a key topic or issue. The flavor of Push that will make our lives better combines convenient delivery with intelligent filtering. Another buzzword for this combination is Intelligent Agents. Already, online services can do keyword searches through the material that they add, and then allow users to see these updates. The original version of this capability at LEXIS-NEXIS was the Eclipse feature, introduced in the late eighties. More recently, a family of Current Awareness products, including InfoTailor and Tracker, has been brought to market by my company. The best Push site I’ve seen so far on the Web is NewsPage, at www.newspage.com. Clearly, these products will evolve, both in the sophistication of the searches they do, with thesaurus-based searches and relevancy ranking, and in the delivery methods, with regard to ease of use issues such as format and timeliness.

Increasing expectations are key to my theory that this technology will become widely used. In mere existence of a technology inevitably drives its use, at least at the high levels of service provided by law firms. As with the cell phone example above, customers (clients) expect their service providers to adopt new technology. This is particularly true when the service generates large fees. Today, no one expects you to be familiar with the contents of hundreds of publications, much less within days or hours of their publication. But Push products allow us, for the first time in history, to sift through all of this material for the name of our client’s business or a key topic or issue.

Early adopters of this technology will benefit by going beyond current expectations. Clients will be astounded and impressed when their attorney demonstrates that she has read every article mentioning their organization, even when the article appeared in a small newspaper or magazine. But I believe that as this concept becomes more widely used, the expectations of clients will grow quickly, just as they did with communications technology. My prediction is that at some point in the not so distant future clients (or anyone with whom we do business) will be disappointed if we are unaware of published information that would clearly be relevant to our interests. They will have to wonder whether we are unaware of a common, useful technology, or whether we simply don’t value that relationship highly enough to be tracking the relevant issues.

Early adopters will also be driven crazy by the weaknesses that exist in any technology when it’s new. Searching technology is still usually based on finding particular, specific words, but we all know that even proper names can have forms that differ from the official versions – think of Big Blue or The Gipper. General concepts may be impossible to find. Another problem is that the same text may appear many times in publication. The most common example of this is wire stories, and it isn’t very rewarding to receive dozens of copies of the same article because it appeared in dozens of newspapers.

Even if duplications are somehow detected and eliminated, the volume of material may overwhelm the user. If you receive twenty or fifty or two hundred pages of "relevant" information that you used to be blissfully missing, you will quickly grow to hate this type of technology, and turn it off. I compare this process to tuning a radio. You have to turn one knob very carefully, back and forth, until you get a clear signal, without other radio stations that you don’t want to listen to coming through the speakers with your channel. Then there’s another knob for adjusting the volume. You can hear more individual instruments and pick out more details at high volume. But you can’t think about anything else when the volume is too high.

I would bet that most users will need expert help in tuning Push tools, and the most logical place to turn is to a librarian. Librarians will turn to reliable, authoritative services that provide access to the largest possible variety and number of sources. It seems that all of us have plenty of work to do for the foreseeable future.

My prediction is that at some point in the not so distant future clients ... will be disappointed if we are unaware of published information that would clearly be relevant to our interests. They will have to wonder whether we are unaware of a common, useful technology, or whether we simply don’t value that relationship highly enough to be tracking the relevant issues.