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Can't Afford Your Own Intranet? Rent One
Web-based services perform similar functions — but spare you the investment

Attorney Joel Rothman constantly collaborates with clients and others on the paperwork for his cases -- it's a way of life in his business. But until recently, the process drove the Boca Raton (Fla.) litigator crazy. "We were spending a fortune sending documents back and forth to clients," he says. He needed a way to cut his overnight shipping charges, fax bills, and secretarial time of typing and retyping documents.

The solution, Rothman concluded, was an intranet -- a private Web site on a company's local-area network (LAN) that's accessible to only those who are on a user list and have passwords. There, collaborators can securely exchange documents, post such information as schedules for collective use, and conduct electronic discussions. Intranets look and work like public Web sites, except the content is accessible to only those in your organization and select outsiders to whom you give access.

Then Rothman found out about the price: To buy specialized software and hire the technical expertise to set up and maintain an intranet, it "would have cost us at least $10,000 -- and we're just a small law firm," he says. So Rothman researched some more and discovered he didn't have to own one -- he could rent an intranet for a fraction of the cost.

Renting an intranet doesn't mean leasing the equipment to create one on your LAN. It refers to special services available via the Web that replicate most intranet functions. To use it, Rothman and his collaborators log on to the Internet using their regular service provider. Then, with their Web browsers, they navigate to the intranet service Rothman uses, HotOffice (www.hotoffice.com). It's one of a few offerings that have sprung up to fill this intranet-affordability gap for small-business users. HotOffice costs only $12.95 per user per month for up to 20 users, plus $11.95 for each additional person. It has no setup fee.

Now, instead of mailing and faxing papers, those on Rothman's access list instantly connect to the private intranet using their password. As the administrator for his rented intranet, the attorney fills out simple forms on-screen to grant individuals permission to enter. He then E-mails or phones them the Web address and password.

Once users log on to HotOffice, they go to their "desktop," a home page from which they can use the site's services. Those include E-mail for exchanging messages with other HotOffice users (or anyone else) and chat rooms for instant messaging. HotOffice also offers "threaded discussions," a sort of E-mail system that classifies exchanges about specific subjects to help those on a discussion list keep track of topics.

HotOffice's specialty is collaborative document creation. It provides software you load on your PC that lets you save documents to HotOffice directly from your word processor and other applications. HotOffice lets users search through the contents of these files for specific references, such as a client name. And they can "check out" documents so other users can't access them while in use. After revising files, users post them back to the site. HotOffice maintains multiple versions, an invaluable tool when collaborating. HotOffice also has sections for posting such information as your organization's employee benefits and lists of Web links of interest to your workgroup.

On the downside, HotOffice's project-management capabilities -- common on most corporate intranets -- are weak. It has a simple calendar and a task list, but you can't create a chart of tasks and subtasks and assign them to specific team members.

TRACK PROJECTS. For those who need more complex project-management tools, there's a competing service called involv Intranet. With that rentable intranet, you can create a hierarchical list of project-related tasks and subtasks and assign them. Involv automatically notifies each person via E-mail of his or her new task. The software then tracks the project's progress, such as how many hours of work remain before a specific job is completed. With involv, you also have the ability to poll workgroup members about an issue -- say, whether or not to release plans for a product.

A basic version of involv Intranet, including the project-management capabilities listed above, is free (www.involv.net). The free version supports a maximum of 15 users and has a limited amount of space for storing documents and other data, making it suitable for only small projects. But you can rent a version with virtually unlimited storage space and additional features, such as templates for planning events and managing product changes.

That version, however, is pricey -- $35 per month per user (for up to 100 users) and a $2,500 setup fee. With either involv or HotOffice, you can remove members when projects end so you don't pay for them unnecessarily.

How do you know if a rented intranet is right for you? If you mostly exchange files and ideas via E-mail, you may not need an intranet -- rented or otherwise. That wasn't enough for Rothman, though. He was concerned about the security of E-mail -- especially for handling sensitive legal documents. He also needed more complicated communications and document-collaboration capabilities, including the ability to work with people outside his office.

That's why renting an intranet was a good choice for the attorney. Rentable intranets work well for telecommuters, travelers, and people outside an organization, because collaborators need only basic Internet service to access them. That's often easier than logging on to the company network from a hotel room. Giving people outside your location access to an intranet located on your LAN is a complicated matter requiring additional technical expertise and security software.

The drawback of renting an intranet? You can't customize it the way you can your own network. A rented site won't carry your corporate logo and company colors. Also, you'll find the going slow if you use a modem to access a rented intranet.

Still, Rothman is pleased with his decision. "We now have a collaborative environment that makes our practice of law more efficient," he says. "It reduces costs and makes us more effective." And it sure beats retyping, faxing, and messengering documents.

By David Haskin in Madison, Wis.

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