On a Saturday night, at a gas station in Munhall Pa., a 2-year-old child sat quietly in his parent's car, strapped into his car seat in the back. Suddenly, violence erupted as rival drug gangs exchanged gunfire. A stray bullet crashed through the car window and killed the child.

Despite the mayhem, the police found some witnesses and obtained the name of the suspected murderer. They were even able to discover that a photo of the suspect was stored at the local Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The police badly needed the photo to obtain a positive identification of the suspect. But the bureau was closed and wouldn't open until Monday, nearly 38 hours later -- an eternity for a criminal investigation.

Luckily, the Munhall police had another, more accessible source. An intranet allows Munhall and six other neighboring police departments to exchange information on crimes and criminals. It also has a mugshot library -- a database of scanned photos stored on a server. Using a Web browser, Munhall police were able to search and retrieve a mugshot of the individual. Within three hours of the shooting, the police were able to make a positive identification of the suspect and then distribute his photo to other law enforcement agencies. The suspect was later apprehended.

BEYOND THE NEWSSTAND

It's unusual for a technology to have an impact on business and government so soon after its inception, but an intranet is not your typical technology. Less than a year ago, intranets were little more than a concept to most state and local governments. Designed to serve an organization's internal needs, they are based on software and standards used on the Internet, with additional security software to protect the network and data from outside use.

An intranet is a way for states and localities to publish and present information to many workers over computer networks, without regard to the type of computing platform in use. For example, instead of incurring the expense and labor of printing and distributing sick leave policies or agency directories, agencies can publish the same information on an intranet, where it can be accessed by any worker with a Web browser. The information also can be kept up-to-date more efficiently than any paper document.

But as police departments in Western Pennsylvania discovered, an intranet can do far more, given the right application. Research shows the intranet is already firmly entrenched as an information platform in the business world, and has moved beyond the "newsstand" model of the public Internet and into hosting business applications, according to Delphi Consulting Group, a consulting and research firm.

It's also clear that intranets, with their relatively simple and open design, represent a powerful trend in information processing in both the public and private sector. That's why some of the leading information technology firms are radically transforming their marketing strategies to take advantage of intranet technology. The vendors' success will depend on whether they simply market hype about intranets or bring something of real value to the customer.

For governments, the key to success will depend on how they use information on intranets. If it's used to publish mission statements and public relations material, then chances are they will never take off. "But if governments use it for commerce and customer service, there will be a big payback," said Sandi Ludwig, IBM's segment executive for government solutions.

LEGACY

IBM hopes to be in the forefront of government intranet solutions, thanks, in part, to its broad customer base. At one end, it has a wealth of state and local government customers still using IBM mainframes to manage legacy databases. "We understand databases well and we're providing products and services that enable governments to use them with the intranet," said Ben Pogue, IBM Government's manager of the Internet marketing solutions