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Outsourcing the Intranet
Mar 03, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

"Push" may be the buzzword du jour in media circles, but in the real world some of us aren't necessarily looking for fancier screen savers. We're still looking for tools that can actually help us get some work done.

Netscape, with the announcement of Communicator, has bundled their Internet telephony, whiteboard and chat application into a mini-suite called Netscape Conference. Conference enables voice conferencing, text chat and whiteboard markup simultaneously, and also provides a peer-to-peer file transfer program. Meanwhile, Microsoft's NetMeeting offers similar functionality -- whiteboard, chat, Internet telephony -- as well as OLE-based application sharing. If you and your partner-in-crime are both running the Win32 platform, you can hand over control of your OLE-aware application to the person on the other end. "Here, Fred. Let me drive that spreadsheet for a little while..."

These tools are a step in the right direction, since they enable long distance collaboration without requiring a host server. I can be at home with my 28.8 dialup connection and collaborate with my colleague across the bay without needing a sysadmin to give us the appropriate rights. But while it's great that the tools are personal, the problem is that they only operate in real time. It's nice to play with a "whiteboard" paint program over a dialup line, but what happens when one of us is a night owl, and needs control of that spreadsheet at three in the morning?

When it comes to collaboration technology, the three major software providers -- Lotus, Netscape and Microsoft -- are focused behind the firewall, where the money is. And I'm sure there are enough communication and collaboration problems behind those firewalls to keep them occupied for some time. But there is a large market of potential collaborators that need more than just whiteboards and text chat. There are folks out there that need threaded discussion groups and secure web spaces and document sharing, but don't have access to their own server technologies to run a full-blown installation of Netscape Collabra or Lotus Notes.

Imagine this scenario: four or five geographically dispersed friends start a business together, Widgets, Inc., designing, building and selling widgets online. In their brainstorming phase, they send ten or fifteen lengthy email messages a day to each other, tossing around ideas. But after a few weeks, things start to get a little more complicated. Jill is working on market sizing. Bob is working on the financials. John is gathering competitive data. And Jane is writing the marketing strategy white paper. All of these documents are dependent upon one another, and the team is relying on email attachments to send revisions back and forth.

A few months in, they realize that their organizational memory is locked up in everyone's Eudora folders, in those dozens of email messages they've stored away. What happens when they bring on employee number six, do they print out all the old email and say "here's the company?" They realize that they need some threaded, archived discussion space, but they need it to be private and secure, since they're wary of all those competitors John is scoping out. Essentially, they'd like to farm out their intranet.

This is a perfect opportunity for a savvy ISP to break the choke-hold of flat-fee Internet access. This is not a collaboration product I'm proposing, but a collaboration service. I would argue that as an ISP there's money to be made in establishing subscription-based collaboration services, using standard tools. A perfect service would provide the following...

  • Secure web space for "internal" web pages
  • A private, secure news server for threaded discussions
  • A document library application, which would enable participants to "check out" documents for revision. It should keep track of who has which document, and when it's scheduled to be "checked in" for viewing by other members of the team.
  • The usual ISP services -- email, domain hosting, listservices, dialup connectivity, etc.

Finally, all of these services should be based on standard tools, so that when Widget, Inc. does buckle down, hire an IS manager and install their own T1 line, they can transfer their outsourced intranet onto their own equipment without a hitch. Or, if Widgets, Inc. doesn't quite cut the mustard, the ISP should provide them a tape archive of all their materials, shut down their services, and be ready for when any one of them does the Silicon Valley shuffle and hooks up with a brand new team building a better strain of widgets...



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