The intranets of yesterday were primarily used for document storage and/or simple news. But the next generation of intranets can be much more, especially when we start integrating web applications. Take SharePoint and Office Web Apps for example.

Office Web Apps and SharePoint

Microsoft launched ‘Office Web Apps’ back in June, primarily as a direct competitor to the more established ‘Google Docs’ (CMSWire covered the software back in March). Essentially the suite includes web based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

I’m not going to cover the features and limitations of the software here, but suffice to say each application is a cut down version of its desktop parent. Word and Excel are probably the most advanced, with PowerPoint and OneNote lagging a little way behind.

Microsoft have made the tools available to end users via three different methods:

  • Windows Live (including hotmail, and more recently Facebook).
  • What is now called ‘Office365’, but was formally the Microsoft ‘Business Productivity Online Services’. BPOS is a cloud based subscription service.
  • Hosted locally as part of a SharePoint server system.

The last two channels are of most interest to us here, where Office Web Apps are used in conjunction with an Intranet or other enterprise systems -- email, file storage, communications tool. 

The Real Intranet 2.0

The second coming of the Intranet has been long promised. The excitement generated by the hype of the ‘web 2.0’ a few years ago brought us close to this goal, with social networking and community style features changing the way people thought in the enterprise environment. But web applications could offer a true revolution in the workplace, one whose practical applications are much more immediate. A revolution where users are freed from the traditional software model, and the Intranet being the center of the office is finally a reality.

Let us use Office Web Apps and SharePoint as an example. SharePoint has always featured strong document management features, and with the right adoption strategies it is possible to get users thinking of their Intranet as a central secure document repository.

Now we can throw Office Web Apps into the mix. Seamlessly integrated with SharePoint, users can now create, edit and amend Office documents directly in the browser. There is no need to open a desktop application, there is no need to actually have a local app installed at all. Everything can be done through the browser (‘everything’ being not quite ‘everything’ right now, what with the limited feature set of the current release -- but let’s put that aside for a moment).

This also frees users from their desktop machines, and allows them to maintain productivity remotely across a range of devices or on the move. The Intranet becomes more than a document store, it now becomes a rich web application in itself.

Microsoft, as you would expect, is not the only game in town. Google Apps have been available for enterprise outfits for some time, and the service has recently been upgraded to offer a wider range of applications. These include services covering streaming media, shared calendars and communications services -- proving web apps don’t just need to stick to the traditional office application space.

In fact we should think of web applications, integrated to our Intranets, in as broad as sense as possible. The web is teeming with innovative services and applications. Online photo editing, audio creation, communications, media streaming -- the list is almost endless.

The future of Intranets is one where these services are built in, and offer end users a functional toolbox. They no longer need to think of the Intranet as simply a storage area, and something separate to the tools they need to actually generate content and documents. The Intranet could be the center of everything.

Final Thoughts

Whilst remote access and thin client technology are nothing new, the kind of integration we have looked at in this piece is a step change. For a long time people have been told that the Intranet should be the center of their working day, but now this is a distinct possibility. Gone are the days where the Intranet was simply about retrieving files and reading news, it is now a tool in itself.

The boundaries between applications, storage, and delivery are becoming increasingly blurred. The user does not need to worry about having the correct program installed, or being on the right machine, they can simply focus on the tasks at hand.

We are only just beginning to understand how web applications can integrate with our Intranets. There are huge and immediate advantages for users working outside of the traditional office environment. But even for those desk bound workers a brave new dawn might be just around the corner.