April 27, 1998
Intranet Advisor: Additional Ideas for Embedding Documents in Intranet PagesBy Steven L. Telleen
My April 13 column, "Exploring Ways to Embed Documents in HTML Pages," generated so many helpful responses from readers that I've decided to share some of them here.
The incorporation of output from legacy tools for communication via an intranet continues to be of major interest to publishers of intranet content. In today's world of vendor hype and proprietary "enhancements," it is important to remember that the original Internet/Web standards and tools were developed by buyers of the technology, not vendors. The goal was to integrate and extend the usefulness of the enterprise's existing investments and to avoid having to purchase replacement hardware and software in order to communicate and share content.
Because the integration of legacy and competing proprietary content was a major focus, several approaches were built into the Web architecture, including the ability to extend integration to new technologies as they arise.
In my last column, I mentioned plug-ins for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. As a reader pointed out, the Microsoft products that allow you to view content generated by these applications are not plug-ins but rather the viewer portion of the application itself. These viewers have been configured as standalone applications that are incorporated as helper applications rather than plug-ins.
The viewers are a solution for people who do not have the native application on their client machines. They are available free from Microsoft, and can be downloaded from the Microsoft Free Download page and freely redistributed from an internal server.
You may want to put a button on your intranet that links to either the appropriate Microsoft site or an internal download site where users can get the viewer. When the user opens the download file, the application automatically installs and configures itself as a helper application for Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer.
While most users today are familiar with this type of activity, you also need to keep in mind that these viewers are not small, exceeding 3 Mbytes. Although the user only needs to download the viewer once (for each application), the download time can be significant over a dial-up connection.
The Content Conversion Option
This brings us to an alternative: converting the content to Web-standard format so the content can be viewed with a standard browser. If your version of Word or Excel does not already support the "Save As HTML" feature, you may be able to download a free "Internet Assistant" from Microsoft's download site or from the Microsoft Office Converters and Viewers page to add these features to your version.
The Internet Assistants create static pages. A couple of readers pointed me to a new Java-based product, Smart Table from Visual Numerics, that takes the process further for Excel by automatically converting Excel spreadsheets into Java applets. For visitors with a Java-enabled browser, the applet presents an active spreadsheet that will recalculate the numbers based on the visitor's input and the formulas in the original Excel version. This provides an easy way for companies that use Excel spreadsheets for such activities as expense reporting to easily create an intranet alternative.
It is important to be aware of the options, and to select the one that best fits a given situation. The best general recommendation is to generate content that can be viewed through a standard Web browser whenever possible. This is the easiest solution for both the audience and the support organization. Client-heavy solutions, like plug-ins and helper applications, should be used sparingly for special cases.