Form or content? How intranets set information free

Composer Phillip Glass has spent his entire life exploring the silent space between the notes, and any neophyte on Madison Avenue can tell you that what you don't say in your advertisement is just as vital as what you do say. In that spirit, the recent Internet World trade show, in San Jose, California, was an interesting event.

Completely missing from this busy show was any kind of online content. There were lots of tool providers, a gross of specialised applications, and even a rather large smattering of access providers, but there wasn't any content. No "101 Canned Articles for your Web Site", no news wire services offering a simple way to have hot industry news automatically updated on your site. There wasn't even a single company highlighting the value of the information on its site. (Online directory sites don't offer actual information, either; they're all links with no content.)

In a lot of ways, I think that's symptomatic for what ails the Internet itself today: lots of form--links, pictures, resumes, chitchat--but precious little valuable content. The Internet has always been a medium for communication, and the transition from participatory system to passive publishing, as represented by the World Wide Web, is something entirely new--a massive change that isn't fully understood. A simple experiment: Ask a half-dozen colleagues which they'd miss more, email or the Web.

Reams of digital information are valuable, and the completely egalitarian nature of the Web is terrific--but only when you can easily differentiate between the amateur and the professional, ascertaining instantly the quality and veracity of the information you are reading. Think about the implications for children doing homework online, for example. Sure they can do research on the Internet, but how can kids become sufficiently sophisticated to discern subtle biases, hidden agendas, or modifications to historical events?

Corporate treasure troves

Intranets come from exactly the opposite heritage. Historically, corporations have had a veritable treasure chest of useful and important information locked behind the walls of the data processing centre. Gigabytes of useful trend analysis and sales figures are hidden in confusing and inaccessible mainframes. Thousands of invaluable documents languish on individual PCs, with the hard copy relegated to dusty binders.

The evolution of computer networking is the technological story of the liberation of information within organisations--that's why intranets are so exciting, and it's why they have such potential to reverse the all-form-no-content trend of the Web. Intranets are all about content seeking form.

Consider all the information your company has available electronically and how it could help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your products and product line and even anticipate the size of your profit-sharing check. Make all that information available to everyone in the corporation, using the easy technologies of the Internet, and you've just empowered everyone. You've created a better, more competitive work force.

Now imagine melding the information in thousands of intranets with the accessibility and technology of the Internet, and something magical can happen. We really can create a new world, a space where there is copious knowledge that's easy for everyone to find and use. This is part of the promise intranets provide, and, after years of looking for good content on the Internet, I say that it's about time.

(Dave Taylor is president of interface design company Intuitive Systems, offering a variety of online content at http://www.intuitive.com/. Dave can be reached at taylor@intuitive.com.)

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