The Peer-to-Peer Intranet
by Tim O'Reilly
Everyone is talking about the Intranet these days, but I think they've got the idea dangerously wrong.
Most vendors going after the Intranet market are trying to "improve" on the Internet by offering structured solutions that coordinate and manage internal web sites. There is certainly a place for such solutions, but when it comes to harnessing the power of the Internet inside the organization, such approaches have thrown away the contents and kept the box. What they hope to create has more to do with the old world of corporate information systems than the new world of the Internet.
The beauty and the power of the net is its diversity, the fact that barriers to entry are low and just about anyone can play. This is the characteristic that has unleashed torrents of innovation unmatched in the history of the computer industry.
What's more, the Internet has always been a peer-to-peer network, with the ability to consume information roughly symmetrical with the ability to produce it. When Mosaic and then Netscape on Microsoft Windows became the dominant browser for the Web, this symmetry was broken. Suddenly, you had a huge population that could only consume information, not produce it.
Ultimately, everyone who has a web browser ought to have a web server. That was our slogan when we launched WebSite, the first desktop web server, back in May of 1995, and it's becoming increasingly clear that we were right. The Internet is about information sharing, not just information browsing.
Ultimately, everyone who has a web browser will have a web server.
Why? Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's chief scientist, once made the point that there are millions of documents that are read by only a few people, and very few documents that are read by millions of people.
While Web entrepreneurs have been feverishly trying to position their sites as one of the few whose documents will be read by millions, a quiet revolution is returning the Web to its users.
The Web was originally created by Tim Berners-Lee as a "groupware" medium, a way for his co-workers in high energy physics to share work in progress. And that kind of sharing should also be the focus of the intranet.
This is a very different kind of web than the one seen in public web sites. No need for fancy graphics (though you can have them if you want!), search engines to find your site, or some unique spin to make your "cool" site stand out from the crowd. Instead, you're serving documents to people who already know they need them.
A graphic designer sends out mail to twenty people, some of them down the hall, some of them in remote offices thousands of miles away: "I've got three possible treatments for the cover of the new brochure. Look at http:... and let me know what you think." Two days later, the votes are in, and the web page is replaced by new work in progress.
These are the kinds of applications that don't require central coordination or million dollar investments. They make people more productive just where they are, like the telephone, the copier and the fax--or the PC itself. That's the real secret of the web: you can put a document, a picture, a spreadsheet, or even access to a database where other people can get at it. No need to make copies. No need to clutter up someone's email or inbox with yet another copy of that twenty-page report. Just send them the URL and let them look at their convenience. Easy access control lets you share a document with just the people who need it.
This is not to say that there aren't more structured intranet applications as well. For example, I can easily imagine a VAR or consultant specializing in Human Resource systems putting together a turnkey web-based package for providing employee handbooks, 401K information (including real time stock quotes), and so forth. But it's a mistake to think that the web is limited to pre-packaged solutions, to catalogs and "zines" and other standard fare.
The ability to serve documents needs to be as ubiquitous as the ability to send email or pick up the phone. The power of the Intranet -- as with the Internet -- is in letting people manage their own information, not in centralizing that power.