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The very idea that we’re still doing old-fashioned, browser-based, news-publishing intranets in the mobile era is downright antiquated. They’re no different than rotary-dial phones. And they’re going the same direction as your old olive-drab rotary phone did -- and as a result of the same technologies.

The question facing intranets should be how internal collaboration and communication tools are going to evolve in the world of social, cloud and mobile -- and whether there’s any place left for the traditional intranet down the line. We shouldn’t be asking if enterprise social will replace the intranet, but rather how long the whole idea of a browser-based intranet portal really has left in the face of mobile apps and form factors (of which social is only one example).

You may not like the message. You may care a great deal for your intranet. You may be tied to it for professional, emotional or financial reasons. You may not see how your company could live without it. And I get it. Believe it or not, I envision, plan and build intranets in my day job. I’m close to this patient. But I know where it’s going.

The Intranet is Dead, Jim

Very few of my enterprise customers will want to hear me say this: The hoary old concept of the intranet is dying. This may sound ridiculous from someone whose business is built in part on constructing those intranet portals for some of the world’s largest companies, but it’s not as radical an opinion as it might seem. Just look around us.

Enterprise-size companies are notoriously conservative in how they buy, deploy and adopt technology. Those companies aren’t interested in being leading-edge unless it gives them a clear leg up on their competition -- ideally in revenue generation, but also in employee retention, idea generation, efficiency and effectiveness. That’s why we’re still talking about enterprise social and not just doing it everywhere. There are still plenty of old-line business leaders who need convincing about its value.

Sooner or later, though, some visionary will have the guts to throw out his intranet in favor of deploying and managing a suite of mobile apps officially supported within his organization. There’s nothing an intranet does that you can’t do in an app.

Think about it: Intranets serve two primary business cases -- communication vehicle and knowledge repository -- and often intersect with collaboration platforms to provide a third -- document collaboration.

The reason why is fairly obvious. Mobile is how people live. Heck, the mobile experience is often so compelling (dare we say, addictive?) at this point that more and more states are actively legislating the use (or disuse) of mobile devices by drivers. People literally can’t keep their hands off of their mobile phones without a law expressly forbidding it.

It’s a foolish executive who won’t sooner or later recognize the power of leveraging that sort of powerful user experience in engaging his knowledge workers.

It will happen. Yes, it won’t occur overnight. Much like switching off email and making the leap to enterprise social as your first-choice internal communications channel, it takes a lot of guts to be the person who kills the intranet.

In reality, intranets will go out with the proverbial whimper, not a bang. But they will go out. Their replacements are already here, in slowly increasing use today.

Here’s how it’s going to go down.

... Long Live the Intranet

What does an Intranet do? Primarily, it’s a communication vehicle is for publishing and increasingly, via social channels, sharing content. Companies keep rolling out new publishing portals for their corporate intranet, designing them beautifully to support their internal brand and culture. But how useful are they, really?

Overwhelmingly, information workers consume content on mobile devices in their personal lives. Occasionally, that’s done via a browser, but there’s nothing you can do in a browser that you can’t accomplish with a more targeted mobile app. Multiple apps exist for content sharing — not just text, but images, audio, video — enterprise social feeds, reading magazines, one-to-one and group messaging, and even collaborating in the creation and editing of documents.

Now that these services are available via the cloud (Software as a Service (SaaS) in action, folks) and Mobile Device Management is maturing, why not simply roll an approved set of these out to all of your users and call time on the intranet? If the apps exist for both iOS and Android, you are flexible from a BYOD perspective as well.

I’m not advocating killing off the things intranets do. Those things are useful and necessary in a huge enterprise. What we’re talking about is evolving them, changing them to fit how people interact with their information (and with one another) now, here, today.

There’s a whole industry of people who will keep building intranets for companies so long as they ask us to, but if they instead ask themselves what will really land with their users, the answer is simple. The intranet in name is dead, yes, but its use cases will live on triumphantly in mobile.

Users might not be asking for a set of work-related apps, but their behaviors -- again, we now need laws just to keep drivers off of their smartphones -- indicate that the sheer convenience and portability of an app-driven set of “intranet” features will probably be consumed quickly and easily. That’s only going to increase as young, tech-savvy Millennials continue to replace the Baby Boomers. And it should happen a good deal sooner than you probably think.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at what’s on offer from Microsoft right now. Not tomorrow. Not in the roadmap. Today, as in you could go out and build this solution next week. 

The Microsoft Mobile Suite a.k.a. 'You Could Do This Today'

Let’s be up front about this: It was Google that really pushed the envelope in this space with the concept of Google for Work, sharing the same files and functionality across devices based on apps that pull shared data from a back-end in the cloud. It’s Google that owns this market in the small-and-mid-sized business space, in education and has created significant footholds in other market segments.

Google is still growing in the enterprise space, though. Right now, in the enterprise, Microsoft has leapt convincingly into the lead with its platform built on Office 365 and Azure Infrastructure. Given then that massive intranet footprints are largely an enterprise characteristic, it’s Microsoft that we’ll focus on.

Let’s look at how Microsoft provides apps and cloud services for any number of key features we traditionally associate with the corporate intranet:

Traditional Intranet Feature Microsoft Service Replaces an Intranet?
Social Sharing Yammer - Doing Yammer in the browser is okay, but Yammer apps live on every major mobile platform already. In fact, Yammer has really pioneered this approach for Microsoft. Yes. The Yammer mobile experience replicates all the key features of the browser version.
Knowledge Base SharePoint Online / OneDrive - A mobile app already exists for accessing OneDrive files. Yes. Given that OneDrive is simply a personal SharePoint library, the groundwork is already laid to do the same for teams.
News Publishing SharePoint Online - No mobile app for content publishing, however responsive designs utilizing HTML5 provide very mobile-friendly experience. And then there’s Delve (see below). Almost. It’s easy to envision an app that simply publishes streamlined HTML pages, images, audio and video to your mobile device… if you add personalization to it, you call it Delve.
Enterprise Search Delve - The first of many uses of the Office Graph, to hear Microsoft tell it, Delve uses machine learning to surface relevant content to users from across the Office 365 suite—documents, yes, but also conversations and more. Almost. Delve would make a great mobile app. And why not simply use Delve for news publishing?
Document Authoring and Collaboration Office 365 – The various Office mobile apps (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) are available on all major mobile platforms and present an authoring experience that is second to none. And because the files they’re using live in the cloud, updates from different authors hit in real time. Yes. Absolutely, unequivocally yes on this count.
One-to-One Messaging Lync Online – Soon to be renamed Skype for Business, cloud-based IM is a core feature of O365. Yes. In fact, this is probably better integrated in the cloud right now than IM is with your current intranet.
Group Messaging Groups – This feature of Office 365 provides for a threaded discussion format and collaborative space that can be whipped up on the fly as needed. Yes. Much like one-to-one messaging, this is probably an improvement on your current environment.
Voice and Video Azure Media Services – This PaaS/IaaS service allows you to serve up video that is stored in the cloud. Almost. Almost. A standard native app for streaming this video does not exist (from Microsoft anyway), but creating one is not difficult.

And the list goes on. On the hardware side, Windows Intune allows for Mobile Device Management to ensure that you can manage all these things across your otherwise fractious and fragmented mobile-wielding audience.

What about integrations to other systems, like HR forms? Partner products like K2’s Appit allow you to build those connections in the Microsoft cloud. And finally, what about SharePoint? Does this whole thesis about the death of the intranet finally signal a similar end to SharePoint (and make its perennially grouchy critics happy)?

Well … no. Because in this model, SharePoint isn’t dead, it’s part of the back end platform. Like Exchange, Skype for Business, Office Pro Plus and very prominently Azure, it’s all part of the cloud platform where the data all those apps are consuming (and ultimately, modifying) resides. This is what so much of the industry is still only now beginning to realize.

All of those trusty old server products that Microsoft shipped through 2010, the products that formed so much of the conceptual thinking and impressions of Microsoft’s enterprise business to this day? They’re not really their own little boxes anymore. They’re collections of services living in the Microsoft cloud. They’re a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) realized in its most elegant form and come home to roost.

Let’s Go Surfin’ Now

Mobile apps are great simply because of this. They are small, lightweight client applications that render cloud-based data, via those cloud-based services, in an amazingly popular, easy-to-consume, easy-to-use, portable form factor that just about everyone’s comfortable with. Whether those services are provided by Microsoft, Google, IBM or someone else, whether the apps are built and marketed by the major software players or their partners, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a great big wave, a tsunami really, and it’s coming.

In the face of that, the old-fashioned corporate intranet doesn’t stand a chance. Intranet peeps, you have a choice: Bunker in behind a few rows of hastily-piled sandbags … or grab your surfboard and join me in the water.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  net_efekt