Can Intranets Support Document Imaging?

Fascination with intranets has led vendors to develop imaging applications that run on the open network. But do they work?

by / February 28, 1998
When Bill Gates wanted to build a landing pad for his helicopter on property he owned near a lake shore in suburban Seattle, he had to file permit papers with Washington state's Department of Ecology. Despite his status as the country's richest businessman, the billionaire's request for a permit was denied, and he built his helipad on higher ground.

The documents concerning Gates' permit request and hundreds of thousands of others are accessible to Department of Ecology staff on an intranet application -- the first of its kind in government. With a Web browser, a staff person can search for documents using a database or a search engine that combs through text that has been recognized using OCR (optical character recognition). Users can also view document images with their browsers. "It's a fantastic application," said Sylvester Polzin, a computer information consultant for the department. "Anyone with a browser and clearance can use it. The system is a no-brainer."


Since the late 1980s, states and localities have invested in document imaging technology to reduce labor and storage costs associated with paper processing, improve access to the information on documents and improve workflow. But costs have remained high.

Another problem has been with providing workers -- whom are not part of the actual imaging application but have the occasional need to view documents -- access to the imaging system.

Today, the Internet is changing the equation governments use to decide who can use imaging or if an agency should even have an imaging application. As an open network, the Internet allows an agency to provide its workers with access to an imaging database from remote sites, making authentic, enterprise-wide imaging possible along with workflow. Already, recorder's offices in Maricopa County, Ariz., and Salt Lake County, Utah, provide customer access to land records via the World Wide Web.

Imaging on the Web is beneficial for five reasons, according to Imaging World magazine:

1. Client browsers are cheap.

2. Independent computing platforms can access the same application.

3. Web applications are highly expandable.

4. Application installation is easy once the server is running.

5. Hypertext linking speeds document retrieval.

Most vendors and government officials believe the best way to access document images with a Web browser is through an intranet. By keeping the application internal to a department or agency, government managers have the best chance of succeeding with a technology that is far from perfect.

"Imaging on intranets is feasible today, but not very practical," said Lawrence Klein, president of Imagination Software, an intranet document imaging company. The problems are many, according to Klein, starting with the network. "First, you need a very strong [network] backbone. Without it, you're going to have trouble transporting document images, which can be as large as 100KB." Small backbones make it difficult to distribute imaging technologies, such as OCR, added Klein.

The other major problem is that virtually none of imaging technology's many components -- scan drivers, print drivers, display engines, OCR/ICR technology, barcode tool kits, forms processing applications -- are designed for an intranet. That's especially true for programs written in Java -- the platform-independent computer language used on the World Wide Web. "You can't do document imaging in Java today," said Klein. "We believe we're three to four years away from having Java-based imaging technology."

According to Klein, ActiveX has a leg up on Java because it does support a number of imaging technologies. The disadvantage is that ActiveX lacks Java's portability. Another problem is that Web browsers cannot read and display typical document images, which are in a graphic format known as TIFF (Tag Image File Format). Users must download a special viewer for those files.

Despite these hurdles, Imagination Software and a number of other vendors are developing solutions to make imaging on intranets as practical as possible. Imagination Software is banking on ActiveX -- despite its limitations -- to create a suite of imaging modules for use on an intranet. At the same time, the company is developing what it believes will be the first native, Java-based technologies for document imaging.

Other vendors working on intranet solutions for imaging include: Acordex Imaging Systems, ByteQuest Technologies, FileNET, Fulcrum, Research, Metafile, Mobius, Optical Image Technology, OTG Software, TMS Sequoia and Omnikron Systems.

In Washington, the Department of Ecology's application is based on a system developed by Archive Retrieval. Essentially a storage and retrieval system, without the bells and whistles found on more typical client/server imaging applications, the Archive, as it's called, allows staff with browsers and proper security clearance to view more than 186,000 records pertaining to shore lands, water resources, water rights and coastal erosion.

According to Polzin, users must download a viewer plug-in to see the document images, which are stored on a CD-ROM. Performance can vary according to network traffic on the department's backbone, but 7 to 10 seconds is a typical response time for image retrieval.


With all the hoopla that the Internet receives, it comes as some surprise to find out that the intranet market is growing. Not surprisingly, Klein and others believe imaging on intranets will eventually dwarf the traditional imaging market in the coming years. But great expectations and promises of grand benefits must be tempered by the fact that implementing imaging on an intranet today has long way to go. The network infrastructure for most governments is inadequate for intranet-based document imaging. The technology for web-enabled imaging is far from mature. "The good news," said Klein, "is there's lot you can do today with imaging and intranets. The bad news is there's still a lot that must be done."

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