Crystal-Ball Gazing


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I have spent much of my career trying to foretell the future. I am no astrologer, but I have worked for high-tech market analysis companies that offer five-year market and technology forecasts to their clients. At the time of publication, the logic behind the forecasts always looks so convincing, but I have copies of reports that I was involved in writing in which the logic now looks totally irrational.

Knowing my background, one of my intranet clients recently asked me to describe what an intranet might look like in 2012, just five years away. The requirement was also that the forecast had to be comprehensible to managers without an in-depth knowledge of web technology. I decided to include examples of websites that illustrated the points that I was making. This column highlights some of my forecasts, for you to consider or chuckle at as you feel appropriate.


One of the challenges that many intranets are going to have to face is that of federated searching, not only across a range of internal repositories but also from external sources that include websites, the deep web, and subscription sites. The company I use to illustrate the problems and solutions is Groxis (www.groxis.com) with its Grokker software suite. This includes federated search in addition to some neat visualization functionality. As with all the examples I cite, others are emerging, but Grokker offers the best way I have found of demonstrating the principles of federated search and visualization.

As has been the case with visualization, faceted navigation and search have been on the agenda for sometime. Faceted navigation is not an easy concept to get across—you have to see it in action. Marti Hearst at the UC Berkeley School of Information (www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~hearst) is the tops at explaining the benefits and challenges of faceted navigation, but for demos nothing beats the examples linked to by leaders Endeca (www.endeca.com) and Siderean (www.siderean.com).

For certain, intranets in 2012 will be making good use of social tagging to enhance knowledge discovery. I use the word “knowledge” deliberately as I feel that, when conscientiously applied, social tagging enables content objects to be identified from a knowledge perspective in the same way as a blog enables an expert to offer their knowledge perspective on a subject. If I had to choose one vendor to highlight, it would be BEA’s product formerly known as Graffiti (until someone considered the social implications of the word) that is now called Pathways (http://en.terpri.se/alpathways/features.html).

Next up comes “machine translation,” though I dislike the term intensely. We have to face the fact that it is very rare to find monolingual intranets in multi-national organizations, and the problems are going to get more complex. Machine translation dates back to the 1960s, and one of the market leaders, Systran (www.systran.co.uk) was established in 1968. There are always stories about the problems of circular translations (English to German and back to English) but they miss the
point about the role of machine translation. Go to www.foreignword.com/tools/transnow.htm and http://world.altavista.com to see two examples, become impressed, and think what these and other systems will be like in 2012.

Another technology that is going to have a major impact on enterprise information discovery is text mining. As is the case with machine translation and search, the early work on text mining dates back several decades, though most of the action has been hidden behind an NSA security blanket. Now the sheer size of the document repositories in large organizations needs more than just full-text search technology. Demonstrating text mining is not possible, but there are now good resources on the web including www.text-mining.org and, here in the U.K., we have NaCTeM, the world’s first national center for text mining (www.nactem.ac.uk).

In this column I have only managed to cover a few of the technologies that will be coming to the best intranets in the next five years. I haven’t had time to deal with other technologies such as semantic clustering, taxonomy management, information relationship discovery, image/rich-media management and retrieval, and voice technologies. It’s difficult to put a start date on intranets, but somewhere around 1996 or 1997 intranets started being seen as serious business applications. Since then, not much has changed in the technology, but now is the time to ready ourselves for some intense acceleration.