Even in these times of lightning quick growth, most young technology companies still have to proceed cautiously, learning to walk before they can run. But after little over a year’s trading, Marimba Inc, the high-profile company started up by a group of former Java engineers from Sun Microsystems Inc, is already dancing to a lively […]
Even in these times of lightning quick growth, most young technology companies still have to proceed cautiously, learning to walk before they can run. But after little over a year’s trading, Marimba Inc, the high-profile company started up by a group of former Java engineers from Sun Microsystems Inc, is already dancing to a lively beat. About 50 companies, including Netscape Communications Corp, Hewlett- Packard Co, IBM Corp, Oracle Corp, Yahoo Inc, Apple Computer Inc and Macromedia Inc, have agreed to use or support its Java based technology, an innovative system to deliver content and software directly to users’ personal computers. Marimba’s idea of ‘push’ technology is one of the latest hot fads in the Internet world. The idea is that users no longer go on to the Web and pull down pages, but pages – and other more active, multimedia applications or objects, are sent to them. From a standing start, Marimba has managed to convince both the venture capital investors and the computer industry that its Castanet product is a potential winner.
Certainly Marimba boasts a solid pedigree. Its chief executive is Kim Polese, the woman who is largely credited with coming up the name for Java while at Sun Microsystems Inc and establishing Java’s international profile so quickly. Castanet has had a phenomenal response, says Polese. People are realizing that this is the beginning of the next big wave on the Internet – getting past the frustration of clicking and waiting to download something. Push technology was not pioneered by Marimba, but by Pointcast Inc, which took the Internet by surprise last year with the success of its Pointcast network. This uses proprietary technology to send news and advertisements to the screens of more than 1.5 million personal computer-based ‘subscribers’ over the World Wide Web. Castanet uses a similar approach but instead of delivering content, Marimba has focused on the technology, leaving the content part to others. The idea behind Castanet is that users subscribe to channels, in much the same way that their television offers different broadcast channels. But instead of using a Web browser to download content, with Castanet, much of the content, such as large graphics files, is downloaded at the initiation of the subscription process and remains on the user’s computer. The channels are then used to send out new information or updates without requiring the user to click on any buttons or send out a specific request. Castanet consists of two parts: The Castanet server software enables companies to create the channels and send out information or software. The Castanet tuner is given away free, and is used to subscribe to specific channels over the Internet. Marimba also offers Bongo, which is a visual software development tool used to create Castanet channels. Marimba’s technology has been developed with a tiny team of programmers, beating larger companies to the market and possibly giving it a significant market lead. But for how long? It is always difficult to say how much lead time we have, says Polese. We have been building the product a long time. It was announced in February of last year so it is pretty mature at this point. That’s slightly overstretching things as the product wasn’t actually announced until last October and only left beta near the year-end (CI No 3,014), but anyhow, Marimba will have to show some quick footwork if it is to flourish. Many companies such as Microsoft Corp with its partner Pointcast, Backweb Inc and others, are trying to establish their own push technologies. Microsoft has already proposed its push-technology as an Internet standard, although Polese says that this is a low level format and is something that Castanet can support while offering additional features. But competition is becoming so fierce that market research firm International Data Corp (IDC) recently warned that the road ahead will not be easy, either for the technology suppliers or the content aggregators that plan to use this new medium. The medium to long-term implications of Internet push technology are, admittedly, colossal, says Ted Julian, a senior analyst at IDC. But there are also problems to overcome, he says. Push technology requires that users become comfortable with a different way of accepting content. Instead of directly requesting it, users, in effect, turn over control to the content producers. It also means handing over large chunks of hard disk space to store huge amounts of data related to the channels they subscribe to. There is already somewhat of a backlash developing towards push technology, says Ross Rubin, a senior analyst at market research firm Jupiter Communications Inc. Marimba has done well so far but it lacks the muscle to establish standards, and that is what is needed in terms of software upgrades. Polese believes that Castanet is in a good position, especially since it has developed a sophisticated way to distribute applications within an organization and to automatically update software on thousands of personal computers, bringing the potential of considerable cost savings to corporations. Marimba has applied for a patent on its software protocol that does the updating. While Castanet delivers Java- based applications, which is a key feature for cross-platform compatibility, it can also be used to distribute Microsoft Windows based software using the ActiveX technology. The rivalry between Java and ActiveX supporters is a contentious issue, with Microsoft accused of trying to push Java to the sidelines and promote its own technology.
My position, in general, is to give people the freedom of choice. I don’t want to dictate what technology they have to use, says Polese. Either way, end user adoption could take some time, since neither Java nor ActiveX are yet used as much as the publicity suggests. Marimba also sees a huge potential market for Castanet in other areas such as entertainment – especially for online games with rich multimedia features that are virtually impossible to do with current slow modems. The company has also been talking with Japanese electronics companies about embedding the Castanet tuner within electronic devices, giving them the ability to bring personalized content directly to the user. While Marimba’s long-term revenue potential may be enormous, the market in the short time is immature. Marimba says it has enough money for now. It raised $4m last year from the $100m Java Fund run by venture capitalists Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield and Byers. It also has some revenue coming in from sales of Castanet server software. But a flotation early next year is likely – and the company is considering accepting investment from larger partners. There will certainly be no shortage of offers.
This article is from the April edition of our sister publication Computer Business Review.