Back in the mid-1990s when the Web was young, corporate Intranets were popping up at companies all over the place. They were usually 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, enabling staff to share documents, best practices, customer information and the like.

But corporate intranets are mostly historical artifacts now. What happened?

No one saw it coming at the time, but in retrospect the failure of the corporate Intranet offers a classic lesson in how even popular categories of products can be quickly made obsolete by seemingly unrelated technological advances and social changes.

TCP/IP Happened

So, what killed the Intranet? TCP/IP was the first culprit. Back in the mid-90s, corporate networks used a hodge-podge of protocols, including SNA and Netware. No one talks about those anymore.

Having an all-IP network made it easier to adopt more Internet-native technologies. Remember when sending emails from one company to another was a chore and not always successful? Now we take it for granted that we can communicate with anyone.

Second, the tool sets got better. Many companies migrated their Intranets to Wikis or Wordpress blogs 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. These solutions include ready-made discussion groups, microblogs, news streams and social media. For example, you can share files with comments attached to them, which is useful if a team is collaborating on a presentation slide deck. Or use them for customer support actions. Or tracking competitors. All the things that worker bees once used Intranets for.

Then Twitter took off, and many of these products modeled their user interface on the simple 140-character “what are you doing now” dialog box. That made it dirt simple to add content and for a work team to collaborate together.

Free Social Networking

The final nail in the Intranet coffin may be an announcement this week from Socialcast. The company is offering a fully featured version of its software for free and forever for up to 50 seats. Expect that competitors will jump on board this model.

These enterprise social networking tools mean more than a “Like” button on a particular page of content: they are a way to curate and disseminate that content quickly and easily. This class of products is distinguished by several features:

  • Team workspace. You can segregate your work teams by project and have all the materials for that project in a single place for easy access. These spaces can be persistent to serve as an archival record for completed projects, too.
  • Activity stream. The Twitter-like stream is useful to keep track of what your colleagues are doing in any given day.
  • Presence detection. Like corporate Instant Message tools, you can keep track of when your co-workers are in the office or ask them quick questions via text or video chats.
  • Document collaboration. You can edit documents in real-time to shape a particular deliverable for a client without having to do serial emails.
  • External services connections. Many of these products can search and interact with CRM systems, SharePoint servers, Salesforce, emails and other external services.
  • Mobile clients. Most products have specialized clients that have been optimized for iOS and Android phones.
  • Public or private deployments. You can start with a public cloud deployment of the product to try out, and then move your system to your own server behind a firewall for the ultimate security.

So say goodbye to Intranets. It was nice to know them. Certainly, the new breed of social network products makes it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate. But that still doesn’t mean that most employees actually use them.

 Image courtesy of Solodov Alexey / Shutterstock.com.