A short history of intranets and what's next with social, mobile and cloud


The history of the Internet, the World Wide Web and corporate intranets share a common heritage. Some where along the way intranets parted way, but the trinity of social, mobile and cloud is bringing them back together again. Before we look at what this means for intranets, I want to spend some time considering their history.

In this post:

Where did intranets comes from?

The history of intranets is very much tied to that of the rest of the Web. When Tim Berners-Lee and his collaborators first proposed the idea that became the World Wide Web in 1989, he wanted to create a hypertext system that would allow users to:

"link and access information of various kinds… [to overcome] current incompatibilities of the platforms and tools."

However, they had no intention of implementing any kind of sophisticated security or access control system. In fact, the eventual aim was to allow what we would now recognise as wiki-style authorship of content because:

"Making it easy to change the web is thus the key to avoiding obsolete information."

So when Berners-Lee released a program called "WorldWideWeb" in 1991, it was conceived simply as a means to this end rather than as a tool that would be used specifically for either public or private hypertext networks.

But it was the release of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993 that was the catalyst for bringing the World Wide Web to life - in October 1994, Wired magazine described the revolutionary paradigm that the graphical Web browser created:

Mosaic is the celebrated graphical "browser" that allows users to travel through the world of electronic information using a point-and-click interface. Mosaic's charming appearance encourages users to load their own documents onto the Net, including color photos, sound bites, video clips, and hypertext "links" to other documents. By following the links - click, and the linked document appears - you can travel through the online world along paths of whim and intuition.

In contrast, the Gopher protocol was simple to implement and organised information in a familiar file system hierarchy, but was heavily text orientated.

The popularity of the World Wide Web also helped to drive the eventual dominance of the Internet Protocol (IP) stack over other proprietary networking protocols, so both the Internet and private computer networks ended up using the same basic technologies for connecting systems and computers together.

What is an intranet?

At this point - circa 1994-1996 - the first intranets were analogous to the Intranet as a networking environment, rather than the World Wide Web which was an information system.

This isn't to say there wasn't any confusion about the terminology, even when intranets first appeared - Rawn Shah explained in SunWorld:

Most people use this word to indicate a network within the corporation. Supposedly, all the components of your network-- workstations, servers, routers, switches, hubs, modem banks, printers, applications, operating systems, and everything else that is not connected to an "outside network"-- constitute your intranet. In this case we will consider the "outside network" to be public online services and the Internet.

In fact, many early "intranet" solutions offered a range of features that included not just a Web server, but email and other groupware-like features (in direct competition with Lotus Notes).

For example, in 1996 Frontier Software launched their "Intranet Genie" package, which offered a:

"Web server; a mail server based on the protocols SMTP, POP, and S/MIME; a news server for discussions, based on the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP); a Domain Name Server (DNS)"

Netscape - then a prime player in the Internet & intranet gold rush - outlined their vision for a "full service intranet", which encompassed:

user services, which provide resources and applications for end users, and network services, which help tie together and run the overall network environment.

For end-users, the base line or 'native' intranet included:

Microsoft also joined the competition, with its own email and Web-enabled server and Web browser stack, and Lotus started to integrate the Web into what became Lotus Domino. Much later, in 2001, Microsoft also launched SharePoint.

But intranets are Websites, not email and videoconferencing?

While vendors may have focused on complete solutions, many people were focusing on the benefits of Web-enablement of internal information and systems through intranets - BusinessWeek reported on the early adopters:

The Web, it turns out, is an inexpensive yet powerful alternative to other forms of internal communications, including conventional computer setups. One of an intranet's most obvious virtues is its ability to slash the need for paper. Because Web browsers run on any type of computer, the same electronic information can be viewed by any employee. That means all sorts of documents--internal phone books, procedure manuals, training materials, requisition forms--can be converted to electronic form on the Web and constantly updated for almost nothing.

But intranets can do something far more important. By presenting information in the same way to every computer, they can do what computer and software makers have frequently promised but never actually delivered: pull all the computers, software, and databases that dot the corporate landscape into a single system that enables employees find information wherever it resides.

The breadth of possible use cases and skills required for a successful intranet project was actually recognised early on - David Strom writing in Forbes advised:

If you are about to begin your first Intranet project, you need to gather together people of diverse skills: computer geeks, artists, diplomats, and negotiators. It seems like a motley crew, but you'll need these diverse talents, along with some careful choices in hardware and software, if you will be successful.

Before you get started collecting your renaissance crew together, you should first narrow your focus and pick your first project carefully. Intranets can cover the enterprise or focus on particular workgroups, and run the gamut from publishing applications to more traditional groupware-style discussion tracking. They can cover inward-looking applications of various Internet technologies such as the worldwide web, email and Usenet news groups, and run on a wide variety of operating systems and servers. And you'll need both technical and artistic help to handle the myriad of details.

Web content has always been important to intranets and information distribution (and authorship) was the raison d'être for the World Wide Web, but intranets were never just about content alone (as is the Intranet).

Aren't intranets different today?

As intranet networks matured, the job of managing and maintaining the different layers of hardware and software became more and more specialised. At some point the concept of an intranet became synonymous with Web content, rather than Netscape's "full service intranet".

Another reason for the focus on the Web content was the issue of 'Wild West Intranets'. One of the early benefits of the World Wide Web was the relative ease of setting up a Web server, which users could access through a free cross-platform Web browser. But intranets quickly became victims of their own success. As early as 1998, Gartner, Inc. wrote a paper that started to warn:

"Is Your Intranet the Wild West?"

In 2005, eimagazine explained the underlying problem this way:

"Information wielding content owners strutted about posting whatever they felt was relevant, and then leaving their wares unattended to gather up dust. Hapless users who stumbled upon this content were not quite sure what to make of it. Was the information still applicable or was it left there months ago?"

On the Internet, sites like 'David and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web', which became Yahoo!, and later Google, appeared to help users deal with the problem. But on intranets, managers spent the following decade trying to use a combination of governance and centralised managed tools such as Web content management systems (WCMS), portals and enterprise search to tame the intranet. In many organisation, this battle with Web content continues to this day.

However, its interesting to note that in Chris McGrath's 2011 definition of an intranet he explains that James Robertson updated his definition on an intranet in 2008 to include 'collaboration' as he observed at that time:

"intranets started showing serious evolution from static websites towards the place where collaborative work gets done."

In fact, when we look back at the history of intranets, it would appear they have instead gone full circle.

What does social, mobile and cloud mean for intranets?

While the intranet conversation has been dominated by the issue of management and control, an alternative conversation was also taking place. Some called it knowledge management, but in 2002 Clay Shirky - more correctly - defined it as 'social software'. A year later, he explained this term in a presentation:

"My definition is fairly simple: It's software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that's a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.

We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we're just finding out what works. We're still learning how to make these kinds of things."

4 years later, Andrew McAfee placed social software into an intranet context when he described his concept for Enterprise 2.0 in an MIT Sloan Management Review article. He described it as a way for social media tools to:

"make a corporate intranet into a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers".

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Ward Cunningham, but its not surprising that it was many years until Web-based intranets started to adopt these kinds of applications.

On the 10th March, 2000, the dot com bubble reached its peak. But rather than this being the end of the Internet, this was just the first wave of change - there was more to come, with a second wave of growth built on a mix of social media, cloud and mobile computing:

Ultimately the influence of this Internet technology innovation on intranets has been unavoidable - for example, Yammer was launched in 2008, with the simple question:

"What are you working on?"

Yammer successfully launched an enterprise micro-blog solution that utilised all three concepts - it was hosted online, provided employees with a private social network (like Facebook) and was fully accessible by mobile devices. Yammer was acquired this year by Microsoft, who are building out a similar strategy with SharePoint itself.

Thinking about the excitement that the launch of Mosaic created in 1993, 20 years later social software tools like Yammer have the same aura of excitement and change. Some people think of this as unnecessary hype; personally I'm glad that Mosaic helped to make the World Wide Web popular as my iPhone would be wasted as an interface to a Gopher server.

What is more reasonable is to fear a return to the wild west intranet era, because this latest wave of technologies exhibit many similar features to the early days of intranet. The difference today is that users don't even need to know how to setup a Web server - they can simply subscribe to service or sign up online with a credit card. As a result, intranet governance is still important, but new approaches may be required as will new skills because of new technologies. In particular, control through centralisation is unlikely to work (or will be very expensive) because these tools are by their nature distributed.

When we look back at the history of intranets, until the emergence of social software very little that was new was written about the management of intranets since they first appeared in the late 1990s. All the advice and techniques used today to manage Web content in an intranet were developed at the same time as intranets emerged. One of the earliest intranet case studies was actually written by Jakob Nielsen and Darrel Sano in 1994 about their approach to designing Sun Microsystems' intranet - and yes, one of the methods was card sorting!

This page - based on the URL, from circa September 1996- records the experiences of companies implementing intranets at that time - the problems they solve with an intranet and the issues they face are earily familiar too. One writes:

"It is currently difficult for off-site employees to get access from our "closed system"

And another:

"Like external Internet pages, finding information isn't always quick. Many people stop by my office for a faster answer."

(there are more views from October 1996 too)

So at the risk of reinventing the wheel, what should we do to deal with the emergence of social, mobile and cloud computing? History would suggest that a static definition of what is an intranet (and therefore, what is in and what is out) does not actually reflect the ever change landscape of intranets. Renaming intranets with terms such as 'Enterprise 2.0', 'Social Intranets' or the 'Digital Workplace' may help to define intranets at a point in time to generate discussion, but ultimately this also causes confusion (and can lead to accusations of hype).

Writing more recently, David Strom asks "What ever happened to Intranets?":

Back in the mid-1990s when the Web was young, we had corporate Intranets popping up all over the place. These were typically internal projects that were used to disseminate information to employees about projects, products, and customers. They were quick and dirty efforts that often involved off-the-shelf parts and little (if any) programming. The idea was to produce a corporate Web portal that was just for internal use, to enable staff to share documents, best practices, customer information and the like.

But they are mostly historical artefacts now. What happened? … the tool sets got better. Many companies migrated their Intranets to Wikis or WordPress when it became clear that these products were easier to maintain and use. And then a whole class of products now called enterprise social networks arrived which have ready-made discussion groups, microblogs, news streams, and social media.

The intranet is dead, long live the intranet.

What next?

I actually don't think there is an easy answer to this problem. The future of intranets has always been written on the Web - if you want to know where intranets are heading, just need to look there. But the constant challenge is to apply Web tools effectively inside organisations.

If we are to deal with the challenge we do need to shift away from the idea that intranets are about Web content management. We actually need a more flexible mindset, because its not just about social either:

Ultimately, intranets are what we make of them.

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