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Cut-Rate Collaboration

Free intranet services provide a simple way for smaller companies to communicate with employees, customers, and suppliers.
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CEO's Start-Up Toolkit: Intranets

Free intranet services provide a simple way to communicate with far-flung employees, as well as with customers, suppliers, and, yes, even your spouse

Kid Cardona was ready for a chuckle when he clicked on the E-mail message that offered free "intranets." "When I first saw it, I had never heard of the word intranet," says Cardona, who is the owner of the Infamous Cartoon Posse, in San Antonio. "I guess that's a term that's used in big business, but I'm a little guy. So I said, 'Boy, did they misspell this. I wonder what else they screwed up." Curious, he opened the message, which touted a new information-sharing service from a company called Intranets.com Inc.

It was no typo. Intranets.com, based in Woburn, Mass., is a leader in the market for free intranet services. Intranets -- basically, internal networks based on Internet technologies -- have been around for about five years. Initially, the Web-like platforms were embraced by large corporations, which found that publishing internal directories and employee manuals was easier to do electronically -- and using intranets was also cheaper than churning out paper updates every few months. More recently, intranets have become easier for small companies (with limited tech teams) to create. And they have become more useful. Today, in addition to Web publishing, intranets typically feature a variety of collaborative tools, including document sharing, group calendars, online meetings, and bulletin boards.

Intranets resemble the Internet in more than name. Users access intranets by means of browsers, pulling up pages that look and work just like pages on the Web. But while the Internet is a public space, intranets are private. Users generally need a password to move from the Internet to an intranet; in some cases, the two may not be connected at all.

Until recently, big companies could afford to build and run their own intranets, but many smaller businesses could not. Small companies had two alternatives -- assuming, that is, that someone had decided it was worth having an intranet at all. The first option was a prepackaged intranet-in-a-box, such as Cobalt Networks Inc.'s Qube 2. Priced at around $1,000, the Qube 2 is a six-pound box that includes the hardware and software for setting up file sharing, discussion groups, and E-mail on a local area network. For companies without a LAN, the alternative was an intranet hosted by an outside service provider. For example, HotOffice Technologies Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla., provides templates for creating and customizing intranet pages. HotOffice stores the data; subscribers have password protected access to the information over the Web. A two-time PC Magazine Editors' Choice, the subscription-based service is priced from $9.95 to $12.95 per user per month.


With some quick clicks on a template, you can have your own private Web site, open only to the privileged few.


Now a few companies have taken the hosted model to the next logical step. Following close on the heels of free home pages, free Internet access, and free PCs, free intranets have entered the fray. Intranets.com CEO Steve Crummey once sold shrink-wrapped intranet software at $5,000 a pop but recast his business model last year with help from Idealab founder Bill Gross. After paring down his software, Crummey began offering a free version in August 1999. So far the company has signed up more than 185,000 groups, ranging from 2 to 800 members in size, Crummey says. In January, HotOffice Technologies countered with a free service of its own.

The two services are similar in features and design. A couple differences: Intranets.com lets users pick their own domain name; HotOffice does not. Intranets.com also requires that users fill out a survey so that information about their company can be used to customize their site. A few clicks later, and the intranet is up and running. By clicking on links, users can post announcements, manage calendars and databases, and upload files. And employees -- as well as customers, suppliers, and anyone else the user invites -- are free to log on.

Group scheduling is a popular feature with the free-intranet crowd. Kid Cardona, originally skeptical about the worth of any free service, today uses his site to schedule gigs for the Infamous Cartoon Posse's six caricature artists, who are based in Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. Before signing up with Intranets.com, Cardona spent hours chasing Posse members on the phone. Now that the cartoonists check the intranet regularly, his phone time is down to 20 minutes a week.

Doris Boeckman, a consultant with Missouri's Department of Public Health, values the ability to share information quickly and easily with clients in 16 communities across the state. Boeckman, who also opted to use Intranets.com, works with community-based groups on issues like elder care and substance abuse. Every week on her site she posts material about funding opportunities and upcoming events. "We've really cut back on mailings," she says. With an intranet, "at the click of a button, it's there."

The price for that convenience is an advertising bar that runs across the top of each page. In addition, Intranets.com charges for telephone support. Although HotOffice's phone support is free, the long-distance call to the support line is not. Both companies offer free support by E-mail but charge for storage beyond the multimegabyte first chunk. (Individual users get 25MB free with Intranets.com; each registered company gets a total of 40MB free from HotOffice. That may sound generous, but if users post a lot of graphics, the bill will quickly mount.)

So far, users seem satisfied with the bargain. "We're all on the Internet so much, you have a tendency to put the ads out of your mind," says Tom McKenna, director of client relations at LiquiDebt Systems Inc., a 12-person credit-collection company in Warrenville, Ill. McKenna, who signed on with HotOffice, compares the service favorably with his experience using a free Internet service provider. "The free-ISP ads really bark at you," he says. "The HotOffice ads are more subtle -- but you know they're there."

McKenna hasn't seen any difference in performance since LiquiDebt switched from the fee-based version of HotOffice to the free service late last year. But computer consultant Glenn Weadock, author of Small Business Networking for Dummies, cautions that graphics-intensive banner ads can significantly boost download time, depending on the speed of the user's Internet connection. In addition, the ads may distract employees and detract from the professionalism of the site -- especially in the eyes of customers.


Scheduling virtual employees? It's easier with an intranet.


Security is another hot button. Intranets.com and HotOffice both promise customers that their data is stored at state-of-the-art data centers featuring sophisticated firewalls, round-the-clock surveillance, and server backup every night. According to Kneko Burney, a research director at Cahners In-Stat Group, those safeguards go far beyond what a typical small business could provide on its own. But the ultimate issue may be control. As Weadock says, "I'm sure 99% of the time the providers will behave responsibly, but if they have a slip, it's out of your hands."

And you can't get everything for nothing. More sophisticated knowledge-management applications, like fine-grained searching, generally can't easily be built on top of Web-based intranets, according to Ian Campbell, vice-president of research at Nucleus Research Inc., a technology-consulting firm based in Wellesley, Mass. But for some business users, free intranets really are a great deal.

Says Campbell, "They're fantastic for collaboration on smaller projects, even in a big company, or for very small companies where the company is the project."

Mary Kwak is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.


If this is Tuesday...

In our household, we're time-management -- or perhaps mismanagement -- pros. My husband and I both have jobs that take us across the country and around the world. Yesterday I got back from San Francisco. Tomorrow he heads for Istanbul. In our ongoing effort to coordinate our schedules we've moved from a whiteboard (not enough room) to a wall-mounted year-at-a-glance (clashed with our decor) to multiple calendars (his, hers, ours) to not-quite-matching PalmPilots.

So I jumped at the chance to give Web-based "calendaring" a try. Getting my free intranet from Intranets.com was easy. Six minutes after I typed in my chosen domain name, onceinabluemoon.intranets.com was mine -- complete with dancing Visa cards at the top of the page. Scheduling is straightforward. I click on the calendar and enter a title, date, and time; then I have to decide whether I want to be E-mailed a reminder before the event. My husband enters his commitments, and we negotiate possible conflicts offline. Since we started using our intranet, the number of conversations that start with "What do you mean you told me..." has sharply declined. But there's one thing the intranet can't do: help us say no. Which is why I'm looking for hotels with good Internet access in Tokyo, Seattle, and Beijing.


Free Intranets

Here's a selected list of sites on which you can get something for nothing. And share it.

eGroups
HotOffice Technologies
Intranets.com
Planet Intra
Wizmo
Yahoo Connected Office


For more on the gear you really need to start and grow your small business, see our CEO's Start-Up Toolkit.


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