Web users finding home with a helpful push

Not-so-secret agents are popping up from a handful of vendors to help IS fight Web wandering by users who get lost on company intranets.

Not-so-secret agents are popping up from a handful of vendors to help IS fight Web wandering by users who get lost on company intranets.

Intranets are a paradox: They can help some users get data faster, but they can be a real productivity buster for others. An inventory intranet, for example, may reduce the routine questions warehouse managers get about what is in stock. But making salespeople search an unfamiliar intranet to find out how many brown leather golf bags are at the Camden, New Jersey, warehouse can eat into time otherwise spent signing deals.

Careful intranet design is one way to reduce World Wide Web wandering. But so is a means of information delivery known as the push model. Automatically pushing relevant data to end users -- via electronic mail or even personalised, dynamic home pages -- saves users from having to search for data on their own.

"It's the way of the near-future," says Jerrold Grochow, a consultant at American Management Systems in Fairfax, Virginia. "We've heard about intelligent agents for years now, but with intranets, we will see it happen," he says.

A handful of companies are expected to ship push products late this year or early next year. They include the following vendors:

* Cognisoft, a start-up in Redmond, Washington, has confirmed that it will ship in January a package that scans corporate databases, documents, the Internet and other data repositories for the information users want. The IntelliServ package then sends the information to users via email, Hypertext Markup Language documents, pocket pagers and other mechanisms. It will cost US$5000.

* Firefly Network in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is scheduled to ship three products aimed at automatically funneling data to user email accounts.

* First Floor in Mountain View, California, plans to ship InfoPilot this month. The product sends updates and changes to corporate data based on predefined user profiles and access privileges. It will cost US$3375 for a server module and 25 user licences.

Sending data out to users will "prevent a lot of frustration", says Dan Fine, CEO of Fine.com Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Seattle. Faced with a giant intranet of thousands of pages, "you don't know where to start but at the same time feel you're missing out", says Fine, who has developed intranets for real estate company Windermere Services in Seattle and Microsoft in Redmond, among others.

Sandia National Laboratory knows that scene well. It was on to the push idea soon after it started its 8000-user intranet two years ago. "We learned from experience -- the experience of our users telling us when they couldn't find things," says Fran Current, Internet technologies project leader at Sandia in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But none of these utilities existed back then. The lab wrote its own Common Gateway Interface and Perl scripts to offer users various subscription services. "When you have a 100,000-page intranet, finding just what you want can be pretty difficult. We have conscientiously tried to make it easier," Current says.

When users aren't pointing and clicking aimlessly for crucial data, networks aren't as clogged, says Karen Isaacson, associate director of human resources information systems at Kraft General Foods in Northfield, Illinois. Good design can direct user traffic, which Kraft learned after building an intranet prototype this year. "Some of our pages are confusing and hard to navigate. Users don't know to scroll or to click," she says. "That doesn't make for happy users."

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