Technology

Intranets: The Internet Moves Indoors

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For years, pundits prophesied the ‘paperless office’ that computer technology would bring, but it seemed that computers produced even more paper in the form of endless printouts, memos and reports. Intranets might just be the technology that changes this, and spark the same sort of revolution inside companies that the Internet is producing on the outside.

The Internet has always been indoors, existing as an international web of computers and the connections between them. Corporations have been venturing out onto this web, putting up their storefronts and advertisements for the world to see for some time now, but it is only in the last year that they have begun to realize that the power of the Internet can be just as useful inside their offices as it can be in the outside world.

Anybody who has worked in the cubicles of a large (or not so large) corporation, knows that a great deal of time and money is wasted in the hunt for, the duplication of, and the distribution of information. Companies are usually full of useful information, but it is stored in employee computers, filing cabinets, archives, databases and in people’s heads. The introduction of internal computer networks and e-mail has helped in the eternal search for relevant information, but problems with software, hardware and complex information storage systems, especially corporate databases, still make the search tedious and frustrating.

Intranets, which are private, smaller versions of the Internet itself, are being touted as the perfect solution to these problems. Imagine a workplace where databases are accessible through the same familiar interfaces as a web search service like Lycos. Where different departments have their own home pages. Where internal reports, production figures and telephone directories are stored, and anyone with a computer on the network can access them. Forms can be printed out as needed. Data can be updated daily. Meetings and group collaborations can be organized and carried out electronically. The savings in paper, money and time are potentially remarkable.

Intranets are based on the same software and protocols as the Internet, and look and act just like the actual Internet. Employees use a browser such as Netscape Navigator to view web pages put up on the company network. E-mail can be sent using the standard Internet mail protocols and programs; there can even be Usenet style newsgroups where employees share information on specific projects or clients — a sort of virtual water cooler. Outsiders are kept from this potentially sensitive data by the same firewalls that companies already use to protect their systems.

One of the principal benefits of using an intranet include the cheapness of the software and hardware, especially since much of it is already in place in most companies. Web browsers are either free or less than $50 each, and web servers keep dropping in price. It doesn’t matter what type of computers employees use to access their intranet, since web browsers are platform independent.

The need for paper inside a company that uses an intranet also drops dramatically. McDonnell Douglas, the aerospace giant, used to produce over 4 million pages of documentation a year for its customers. By moving to an electronic distribution system, using the World Wide Web and Intranets, it has started to cut into this enormous amount of paper, as well as the time lag and cost involved in sending this documentation around the world.

Naturally, computer and technology companies have been the first to see the advantages of Intranets. Electronic Arts, the games maker, has an extensive intranet, and uses newsgroups internally to help teams collaborate on projects. Hewlett Packard has 200 internal web servers, with 10,000 users, and the figures for Digital Inc. are twice as high. But not only technology-based corporations are realizing that these internal Internets could help them. According to a Forrester Research Inc. survey of 50 large companies, 16% have Intranets already, and another 50% are in the process of creating them or planning to. Netscape reports that more than 70% of its revenue comes from selling web server software for corporate Intranets, and Zona Research Inc. predicts that the total software sales figure relating to intranet servers alone will be $4 billion next year and $8 billion in 1998.

This sales figure doesn’t include the wide number of other programs available or under development specifically for corporate Intranets. Everyone from Netscape, Microsoft, IBM, Sun and Silicon Graphics to small new start-ups is trying to get in on this potentially huge market. Products include news, conferencing, database and security software. Netscape’s new browser, which is currently beta testing at version 3.0, includes collaborative technology acquired by the company’s purchase of Collabra Software. The browser supports audio conferencing and has ‘whiteboard’ capabilities, which suggests it is being aimed more at the intranet than the Internet audience, a sign of the faith Netscape has in the future of Intranets.

For years, pundits prophesied the ‘paperless office’ that computer technology would bring, but it seemed that computers produced even more paper in the form of endless printouts, memos and reports. Intranets might just be the technology that changes this, and spark the same sort of revolution inside companies that the Internet is producing on the outside.