Hire consultants and temps, rent phones, furniture-and apps

What if your office could conduct its daily operations by renting applications cheaply
from remote servers, connected via the Internet?

 Several software companies and a handful of Internet service providers are betting
that small to medium-sized government offices will see an advantage in renting, rather
than owning, their business software.

 The likeliest subscribers would be temporary offices set up for one-time-only
projects or negotiations. But any manager who wants to hand off the responsibility for
installing and maintaining massive amounts of office software might find the rental idea
attractive.  


Groupware applications will be the first in the rental market, because the Internet
already is a collaborative environment and because some groupware is ready now to use
through a World Wide Web interface.

 Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are working on collaborative
applications for rental. But for now, Lotus Development Corp. sets the pace in this
market.

 The IBM Corp. subsidiary has come up with Domino Service Provider Applications.
Lotus' plan is to recruit local and national Internet service providers to host easily
customizable Lotus Notes applications on Lotus Domino servers and rent them to users who
would pay for Internet accounts on the providers' systems.

 If the idea takes off, it could push service providers into a whole new business.
Instead of simply providing the pipe that connects offices to the Internet, they could
become packaging consultants that develop and host virtual private networks for specific
projects.

 Organizations wouldn't have to spend months configuring full-blown Notes networks.
Instead, the providers would make it possible for users to configure their setups quickly
with pull-down menus to establish user accounts and privileges and build database links.
 


Steve Brand, Lotus' director of hosted Internet solutions, said the cost of such a
groupware installation might be as low as $10 to $30 per user per month.

 "Some government agencies have been very successful in deploying Notes,"
Brand said. "This product isn't necessarily for them. This is for small offices that
don't have the time, money or skill" to set up groupware on their own.

 What about those who need highly customized applications? Late last month, Lotus
announced the Domino SPA developer kit, complete with application programming interfaces
for customizing Domino. Information is available at http://www.lotus.com/spa/.


 Lotus is working with Netcom Online Communications Services Inc. of San Jose,
Calif., to deploy some of the first Domino-based applications. These include discussion
areas, file libraries, calendaring and task management-all integrated with Netcom's
billing, registration, directory and management software. See http://www.netcom.com for an announcement of
availability.

 Lotus might be first out of the gate with an Internet software rental plan, but
Corel Corp.'s new Office for Java-a set of platform-independent, modular office components
designed for intranets-could adapt easily to this model.  


To test drive the new Corel suite, download a beta copy from http://officeforjava.corel.com/.

 End users of Microsoft's ActiveX apps also might interface with complex office tools
using nothing more than a browser on their machines. You could in theory set up a quick,
easy Internet Explorer interface to rented applications running on a Microsoft Internet
Information Server.

 Netscape Communications already offers more than 20 reusable intranet applications
and makes source code freely available in the AppFoundry section of its Web site.
Enterprising providers could license, customize and rent these business tools, too.

 I see renting sophisticated business applications via the Net as the ultimate way to
try before you buy or bring in-house. The day of the third-party developer could be
numbered. Maybe that software function will just merge with Internet service
providers. 


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
GCN's parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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