It's been a few years since the IT industry got itself into a lather over the revenue potential of a new paradigm. Not so long ago it was ubiquitous Unix that was to sweep the globe, while at about the same time any dealers involved in networking tended to wax lyrical about the pot of gold asynchronous transfer technology might yield. Since then the pack has moved on to new enthusiasms - Windows NT, Java programming, network computers and, of course, the Web.
Until now, the Web has probably proved the most commercially disappointing for channel players, unless they are PC resellers catering for the non-corporate market. Sure, users of the Net today number in their millions, and Web sites abound. But much of this is still rooted in the domain of the individual surfer and, where resellers and their business clients get involved, their Web sites often prove not to be the money spinners they had first envisaged.
In fact, after its first hot flush, business' passion for the Web is now waning - a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that in the US the average transactional Web site is reckoned to cost firms a hefty $400,000 a year or more to run. And this figure is likely to soar over the next 12 months as HTML page generation becomes passe, and newer, more expensive forms of multimedia page design become the norm.
Until online consumer shopping becomes a reality, aided by the latest hybrid devices of networked PC/ TVs, revenue growth will remain slow.
For the channel, this means the jury is still out on just how valid an opportunity the Internet is when it comes to catering for business. At least, that was the case until a sibling paradigm, the intranet, quietly slipped into the world.
Although the concept is still in its infancy, the consensus is that if a technology based on TCP/IP networking standards allows you to create a private messaging network irrespective of hardware platform, and uses Web browser front-ends, it's probably a safe bet to call it an intranet. In other words, everything you associate with the Net, but kept strictly in the family.
The definitions are still somewhat blurred here. For a start, existing groupware products such as Lotus Notes do much that intranet technology is meant to do, with better security. But it is at a licensing cost and, as the security issues surrounding electronic commerce via the Net are resolved, it may well be that such groupware offerings are supplanted by cheaper, intranet alternatives.
Similarly, electronic data interchange (EDI) may take a dive as companies realise closed-circuit intranet networks can be just as effective in maintaining supplier links - providing the issue of integrating Web front-ends with, say, database back-end hosts, can be satisfactorily resolved.
Either way, it is clear intranets hold the best hope yet for dealers and Vars to make money out of the Net, particularly in the realms of consultancy and adapting existing software. If customers want a Web site to attract more business, or if they only want an intranet as the basis of an internal messaging service, the issues of security, network routing, back-end database compatibility, and ongoing interactive page design have to be addressed.
All nice little earners for Vars and dealers.
So how do you tap into this goldmine? One obvious place to start is the provision of Web sites for existing clients. If that means building data links between a proprietary platform and a standalone Web server, it's probably no bad thing. You've probably already elbowed out potential competitors that cannot provide the same integration service. Conversely, your credibiltity might take a serious nosedive if you can't demonstrate capability through your own Web site.
Earlier this year, at the annual dealer Comdef shebang, Website Consultancy undertook a survey of dealers that already had their own sites. Managing director Jan Stannard was among the conference speakers. 'Only 17 per cent of the dealers canvassed had Web sites, which was absolutely amazing,' she says.
'It compares with nearly a third of major UK firms that have Web sites, and a further 30 per cent that are planning to in the near future. How dealers can hope to pitch such concepts as intranet technology without first having their own Web showcase is beyond me.'
One problem unearthed at Comdef was that, of those dealers that had set up Web sites, few had made any money from them. But, says Stannard: 'Resellers shouldn't expect to make money out of the Web. They should instead be looking to the longer term.'
In the US, where intranet consultancy is flourishing, one lucrative area of expertise is the transferring - if not translating - of existing information from the corporate database or databases to the separate store of HTML documents to be served across the network. This is fairly straightforward for text documents, but for anything more complex - such as multi-layered spreadsheets or dynamic invoicing - the simple intranet approach is often not enough.
Otherwise, corporate databases represent a unique and highly valuable store of information about customers, markets, divisions and future trends.
Giving intranet users easy access to these could offer major benefits in terms of a company's day-to-day running and future planning.
It's here, though, that strategy - in the sense of which Web client or server software to push to customers - starts to rear its ugly head. As most people know, Netscape has blazed the trail in providing Internet browsers and servers. Just recently, in a bid to kick-start the intranet market, the company unveiled plans to distribute 20 free Java applications covering business areas such as human resources, customer service, career appointments and expense accounts. The idea was that the free applications tempt users to build intranets around Netscape's products.
But Microsoft is rapidly gaining ground, primarily through the ease of use both W95 and Windows NT offer as the basis for Web server engines, and the fact that support for Active X - MS' challenger to Java applets - is already built into its Internet Explorer browser. Add to that the fact that when the company's Office 97 suite comes fully on stream it will have built-in Internet functionality, making surfing an almost seamless extension of a PC's hard disk. So once again Bill Gates is close to having his enemies surrounded.
But back to basics. For any Var taking its first dip in intranet waters, Guy Cuthbert, senior Internet consultant at solutions provider ABS, has simple but stark advice. 'Read as much as you can. There's a lot of hype out there, a lot of rubbish, and before anything else you have to understand the limitations of presenting information through browsers,' he says.
'It's also no use hoping to impress with the latest technology. Some of the more successful intranets that we've installed have been based on technology that is incredibly easy to use and we are not only aware of its limitations, but we deliberately work to them.'
For a simple showcase Web site Microsoft's Personal Web Server is probably as good a place to start as anywhere, he suggests, using one of the many authoring packages available to compile HTML output. If scalability is likely to be an issue, packages such as IIS or Website can be installed on Windows NT to cater for intranets, linking hundreds, if not thousands, of users.
As for whether program developers should go down the Active X or Java path to multimedia applications for an intranet, Cuthbert still thinks it is 'a two-horse race', although a lot of developers are putting their bets on Sun's Java.
So what kind of sales pitch is being used to tempt sceptical boards that intranets are a worthwhile investment? Trevor Grove, international support manager at Process Software, which builds tools for HTML migration and database integration, argues that the cost of building an intranet is almost immaterial, compared with the potential savings.
'Even a standard intranet can save thousands on paper bills by hosting such things as the office phone directory and holiday requests forms,' he says.
But Grove acknowledges intranets have their drawbacks. For instance, if the client doesn't have a good networking infrastructure in situ, problems with data speeds can soon occur. But it is very early days yet.
Intelligent Environments, an independent UK software developer which recently went public on AIM with a value of #20 million, attributes much of its meteoric rise to its Amazon Web development environment. The firm is distributing this technology through its own Var channel.
Company founder and group strategy director Laurence Shafe is convinced that opportunities for the channel to earn substantial profits from intranet consultancy have only just begun. But he says resellers hoping to find a piece of the action should first be clear about which aspect of the market they are catering for. If, for example, the area of interest is is extending existing Web site, then the pitch should be made to the business executives within an organisation.
'We see this as developing the next generation of interactive Web applications, which not only allow clients to offer a wider range of products and services but also get greater feedback from their customer base,' says Shafe.
A typical case in point, he says, is Tesco's recent broadening - with Intelligent Environments' help - of its Web page to provide direct delivery of flowers, chocolates and similar purchases to shoppers.
Intranet service pitches per se, suggests Shafe, are better levelled at IT departments that often want to pilot an internal use of the Net before unleashing their Web offerings on the outside world. Alternatively, they may want to extend their existing TCP/IP network so that staff can get answers to frequently asked questions about corporate policy or products.
A third level of pitch, which Shafe terms an 'extended intranet', is where the technology embraces anyone in the organisation's value chain.
It's here that PC-based intranets containing sensitive information about pricing, begin to overlap with EDI.
Unlike other experts, Shafe does not see the two technologies so much as complementary, as ultimately converging. 'EDI has been working on these problems for 10 or 15 years, trying to establish a universal client architecture, and then suddenly the Internet provides a ready-made vehicle for exchanging data,' he says.
'As for whether intranets can handle the volumes normally associated with EDI, the Net has been doing that for years - and shows no signs of slowing.'
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