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A solution may be in sight for any government agency that has sought to expand the benefits of its existing imaging system but has balked at the high cost. Imaging is about to join the Internet. In fact, the first instances of Web-enabled imaging have already appeared, and the industry's leading vendors are working at various speeds to fulfill Web strategies for their imaging and workflow products.
By the end of the year, Wang, FileNet, IBM, ViewStar and others should allow anyone with a Web browser to search for and retrieve document images regardless of the computing platform on which they reside. For example, a worker in one department, using a Macintosh or PC, will be able to connect to the Internet and, with a browser, pull up images of documents stored on another department's UNIX-based imaging system. "The Internet solves some of the cross-platform interoperability issues of imaging," said Karen Shegda, associate managing analyst for Datapro Information Services Group.
Interoperability -- always a costly issue -- has stymied government efforts to expand document imaging beyond the core group of workers on a local area network (LAN) to workers at remote locations or to the general public. But the Web can simplify the deployment of imaging to workers or individuals who may have only an occasional need to look at documents. "Everything is easier because the data, images and application software are all on the server," explained Shegda.
Unlike client/server systems, which require a fair amount of software on the client computer that's compatible with the server software, clients in Web applications need only the universal browser -- which can be acquired for little or no cost -- to perform simple searches and retrievals of images across a variety of platforms.
Metafile, an integrated imaging and COLD (computer output to laser disk) software vendor, has a Web-enabled version of its Metaviewer software. According to Nick Sprau, Metafile's vice president for worldwide marketing, customers are latching on to the software because it eases some of the networking restrictions of existing imaging applications. Organizations can take advantage of the Internet's existing network infrastructure and lower their imaging implementation costs.
The software, known as Metaviewer WWW, consists of three components: a Web server, a common gateway interface (CGI) and the Metafile server, where the COLD and imaging applications reside. A user fills out a form on a Web page and submits a search to the Web server, which interacts with the Metafile server via CGI and returns with a list of hits. Users have the option of viewing the first page of the document or the entire contents.
FileNet plans to distribute a free plug-in that will interface with Netscape's Web browser, allowing workers to view images that reside on a standard FileNet image management server or a Watermark server. Later this year, FileNet will announce a comprehensive Internet/ intranet strategy for all their products: imaging, workflow, document management and COLD.
According to Terry Mullin, FileNet's manager of product marketing and Internet strategy development, the company plans to migrate all of its desktop products that run on LANs to the Web. "As a company, we are moving toward what Microsoft calls the 'user experience,' and plan to make all of our future tools Web-browser aware," said Mullin.
Microsoft, in its next major release of Windows, intends to develop the "user experience" so that all interaction between user and computer will take place through a super browser. Users will no longer know whether the image or application is local, remote, on a LAN, the Internet or an intranet. "Our goal is to parallel that convergence strategy," remarked Mullin, "so that we can have our products look, feel and act as if they are part of whatever user environment they are employed in."
Mullin went on to say that FileNet's Internet strategy is to provide the tools and resources necessary to manage all the information on the back-end of Internet applications. "That's what's really important," Mullin pointed out. "Once you open up any imaging application to the Internet, you need a back-end that is robust enough to support both the LAN environment and the Internet with its wider span of users. We're building our strategy based on mission-critical standards."
Andrew Swenson, an imaging manager for Indianapolis and a FileNet customer, said he's excited about the potential for using the Internet to access images. What intrigues him is the possibility of developing an application for an intranet -- where software security allows only certain users access to Web pages -- as a way to experiment, and then to extend the application to the public via the Internet once it's reliable. "It really opens up your programming environment," he said.
But Swenson is looking at the Internet with his eyes wide open. "Right now, we're taking a wait-and-see attitude. I know that there are some limitations concerning the use of document imaging on the Internet," he pointed out.
Those limitations include performance, image quality and security among others, according to Shegda. In a presentation made at the AIIM conference in Chicago last April, Shegda detailed the drawbacks to using an Internet-based imaging solution:
Performance can be a significant problem. During peak periods, response time on the Internet can be agonizingly slow.
Security remains a prime concern on the Internet, although headway is being made. The problem that needs to be addressed is how to restrict access to certain text and image files to curtail unauthorized use.
Performance can also be affected by image file size. Image files are large, typically 50Kb per page, slowing down their access and display.
Users may not be able to view images with a particular browser. Often, special image viewers (such as TIFF) are required.
The Internet may also affect image fidelity, requiring special processing software to prepare the images for access via the Net. Shegda recalled IBM's development of advanced software to prepare images from
the Vatican's library for display on the Web.
Protection against the digital alteration of original documents is another concern. Shegda said that vendors are beginning to address the problem through digital watermarking, date stamping and digital signatures.
The bottom line, according to Shegda, is that imaging on the Internet is still in its infancy. Government agencies, like other imaging customers, should tread carefully and familiarize themselves with their vendor's Internet strategy before taking the plunge.