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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    You already know about the Internet--now meet the Intranet and its useful possibilities

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #326  January 23, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    If you've been following this column for the past couple of weeks, you'll know that we've been looking at ways of using new or newly affordable technology to help businesses move from documents on paper to digital equivalents.

    Two weeks ago, we saw how a new generation of page scanners can convert existing paper to digital form and how, with optical character recognition, your computer can read the resulting pictures, giving you something you can easily store, or edit with your existing word-processor. Document-processing software will index your documents, allowing you to find what you need more easily than in traditional filing cabinets. These hardware and software solutions are finally being marketed in packages aimed at small offices.

    Last week, we examined software like Adobe's Acrobat which allow you to make documents that look like your printed originals, complete with text, graphics and page layout. These can be viewed on any computer or operating system--Mac, DOS, Windows, or UNIX--whether or not it has your original software and fonts. As an example, you could distribute your product catalogue to your customers on a floppy disk, which is much cheaper than printing a full-colour, glossy-paper version.

    But why even bother with floppy disks? If you're maintaining and distributing digital documents, why not distribute them electronically? Businesses on the Internet can make that same product catalogue available to anyone using the network.

    But while HTML, the "hypertext markup language" used on the 'Net, allows users to create home pages mixing text and graphics, its page layout features are strictly limited, which can feel like a step backwards if you've paid for fancy page design. However, Adobe has been working together with Netscape to help overcome this, and Acrobat's PDF files can now be viewed with the newest version of Netscape Navigator, the most popular Web browser. This allows you to post documents on the Internet that can be viewed with their design intact.

    But while the Internet has been getting all the publicity, a quieter, parallel evolution has been sweeping business networks. The same tools used in creating and viewing a World Wide Web page on the Internet can be used within your business's own network to create an Intranet.

    With it, your business can post digital documents which can be viewed internally by your employees. Typical uses include policy manuals, price lists, technical support, training manuals and employee lists--complete with photos, if you wish. These can be easily updated: instead of printing revisions and distribute them throughout the enterprise, you just alter the version on the server.

    Because this is your internal network, it is much safer from outside hacking than data posted publicly on the Internet. And because it uses exactly the same tools as the Internet, it can be accessed by your employees through easy-to-use (and in many cases, free) Web-browser software such as Netscape Navigator.

    Without much publicity, this Intranet has been growing. Ford Motors, for example, currently has 56,000 Netscape units connecting to 80 servers on its Intranet, with plans to expand to 90,000 users soon.

    The Intranet trend is mature enough that it's now being recognized as a valid market. Corporate database giant Oracle is rushing products like WebServer (about $5,000) and PowerBrowser (free) to market to enable enterprises to access the corporate database from their internal Web. And Novell is releasing Netware Web Server, to allow the existing Netware network to better coexist with the emerging Intranet.

    Watching all this with some trepidation is IBM. Just last year it purchased Lotus Development, and not for its traditional products like the 1-2-3 spreadsheet. IBM paid US$3.5 billion to get its hands on Lotus Notes, a product which has allowed corporate network users to access company information more easily. There are currently some three million Notes users, and with version 4.0 being released as we speak, IBM hopes to make this an industry standard for information exchange.

    But while the Intranet lacks security and other features that make Notes more robust, it's cheaper and easier to implement in a company with a range of computer types and networks, pretty much all of which already support the Internet's TCP/IP standard. And Notes hasn't been known for ease of use, while Intranet users get by with simple-to-use Web browsers.

    Oracle CEO Larry Ellison suggests that accounting or manufacturing applications, where security is critical, don't make much sense on the Intranet, but document-centred applications, like Notes-class applications, can be moved over to the Web: "Corporations that have created Notes networks will switch to Internet development because it is cheaper and better for doing the same things."

    In response to the Intranet phenomenon, IBM is releasing InterNotes Web Navigator--a step towards allowing Notes networks to interact with Web sites--and has announced dramatic price drops to attract new users.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan