Opportunities for All


Digital Imaging Weds the Internet

The merger of the two powerful technologies is producing many business opportunities

by Heather B. Hayes

Document imaging has finally tied the knot with the Internet, and rest assured, this is one celebrity match that won't be so easily torn asunder. The merger between two powerful information technologies has been kept fairly quiet up to now, but supporters from both sides of the aisle are now creating quite a clamor in their enthusiasm, predicting great opportunities for all involved.

"The train of logic follows that those people who have found business value in installing imaging systems and utilizing them will begin to want to communicate that information to its users via the most efficient distribution vehicle out there," said Gary Monroe, chief executive officer for Lason Systems Inc. in Troy, Mich. "It's still in the early adoption phase, but bringing the two together is definitely a trend that we expect to take off."

And those in the know are already moving forward. Lotus, for example, recently announced a document management solution called Domino.Doc, a World Wide Web-based, collaborative means for capturing, storing, retrieving and distributing documents over corporate intranets and the Internet. Adobe Systems, based in San Jose, Calif., has been in the forefront of the trend. It is already bringing several government entities online, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which recently converted its technical reports and policy documents to the Adobe portable document format affording laboratorywide access through the Web. And Lason Systems has expanded its integrated outsourcing services to include the storing and distribution of image files over the Web.

Greg Toth, manager of the Herndon, Va.-based Core Technologies group for Northrop Grumman, a systems integrator, noted that customer demand is definitely helping drive the trend. "From a government perspective, which is a pretty good portion of our customer base, we're seeing more and more requirements ... to use Web-based technologies on their imaging solutions," he stated.

Still, there is some hesitancy about putting internal data out on the greater Internet for all to see. As a result, most industry players believe that intranets will bear the bulk of this activity initially.

Chris Hunt, business manager for Adobe Systems, said this trend was borne out in a recent company survey, which found that 70 percent of active clients were storing content and making it available to the rest of the company via intranet.

But as security issues are worked out, few doubt that imaged documents of both current and legacy data will eventually become another data type available on the Internet. "We're seeing a tidal wave of interest," stated David Wimer, president of Novacom Inc., a systems integrator in Reading, Pa., which specializes in document management and workflow systems. "We're seeing a real commitment to the intranet right now, and we expect to see additional commitment to making data available on the Internet. The overall trend in the marketplace is that this is the way to go."

Not as Easy as It Sounds

Currently, organizations actively engaged in getting Internet or intranet access to their document imaging systems possess some similar characteristics: They see it as a way to reduce their paper inventory and cut costs; or they frequently need to retrieve a certain piece of information and the way it's currently accessed is creating a problem with customer service. Early adopters include commercial manufacturing operations, financial institutions and government agencies.

But no matter the perceived benefits, economic viability should always be carefully weighed before companies embrace this new trend. Industry experts warn that wanting to fuse document imaging and Internet technologies and actually doing it are two different things, as challenges involving security, system responsiveness and conversion can be complex and sometimes expensive.

Security is always an issue in any Web-based system, and so is ensuring that the system has enough responsiveness to handle peak demand times. But one of the biggest concerns is successfully converting paper and other data types so that they can be easily found and read on the Internet. Currently, documents already in electronic form are usually saved in tagged image file format, or TIFF. Most popular Internet browsers, in fact, offer a plug-in TIFF viewer. However, this format renders the images static, meaning they can only be searched for by their file name rather than their content.

"It's very analogous to a picture," Toth explained. "You can't really delve into the content of the document. So a search engine isn't able to analyze the content of that digital image, even though it may be an image of a bunch of printed text like a memo."

TIFF documents pose less snags for intranet users, but using them across the Internet will definitely weaken access. Users can convert the imaging file to ASCII text using an optical character recognition process. However, the file's original look is not always retained and the process can be time-consuming depending on the structure of the data and if any errors were made during the conversion. Another option is to convert to Adobe's PDF, which Hunt said, "gives you not only a live document but one that looks exactly like the original," and has become increasingly popular.

Lason Systems Gary Monroe said it takes expertise to deal with major conversion efforts that may involve legacy data
Any major conversion effort is an undertaking, but one that involves legacy data can be especially challenging, involving a considerable investment of time and money. "The information could be on microfilm, microfiche, paper or any variety of electronic format," stated Monroe. "And it takes a certain expertise to deal with that."

But many companies are side-stepping the problem of legacy data by simply taking a day-forward approach, he added. "It's again the question of economic viability. I don't see people saying, 'Let's get all of our old documents up on the Internet.' There's a cost to it, and that has to be thought through as part of an overall business strategy."

Robert Weiner, vice president of marketing for OTG Software, Bethesda, Md., which specializes in imaging technology, adds that any company that's already taken the steps to implement a COLD - computer output to laser disk - or document imaging system will have little difficulty moving to a Web-based system. "They've already taken the more difficult step of converting paper and other data types into an electronic format and stored in a repository," he explained.

From there, he said, it's only a matter of making the repository available on the Internet or intranet and then adopting the viewer or viewing mechanism to work with the popular browsers on the market today. "It takes a little bit of doing but it's not rocket science," he said.

Opportunities for All

Whether a company has an advanced document imaging system or is only getting started, the need to put that imaged information on the Web will create tremendous opportunity for many computer industry players, especially systems integrators, value-added resellers and outsourcing specialists.

"It's still desirable to have a systems integrator involved," Toth noted. "There are a lot of things that can go wrong with costs and performance if bad choices are made in the product and technology mix. Doing this successfully really involves proper planning, and that's a real value-add that you get from an integrator."

Monroe noted, however, that the Internet is nullifying the need for the custom imaging systems traditionally put together by systems integrators. "As this Web-based document imaging industry emerges, you're going to find more standard packages made available from the major companies that will end up extinguishing demand for a lot of this custom retrieval software integrators do a lot of today," he said. "I think that's definitely going to have an impact."

But, he said, integrators and value-added resellers will continue to play a valuable role, especially in legacy conversion efforts.

"No matter what kind of software is used, somebody [must] still get in there and do that back-file conversion," he said. "You're talking about taking information from a variety of sources and formats and converting it to a common imaging system, and there's no easy way to solve that problem."

Many organizations, however, are less inclined to be involved in the document imaging process at all, choosing instead to outsource the entire operation. Hunt noted that several companies are already doing an end run around the technical issues by hiring a service bureau to perform scanning and conversion functions.

For example, Lason Systems Inc. now offers Web site management in addition to its previous document and records management services. "All of this really offers a great opportunity for companies like us, because customers who really want to offer their information online are nonetheless put off by the costs," Monroe said. "We can do it for them much cheaper than they can themselves because we have the volume to offset it."

He continued, "We're definitely preparing for the demand, because companies are really recognizing that the Internet is the perfect low-cost communication vehicle for accessing an electronic archive. They're heading in that direction. It's just a matter of when will they get there and how fast."

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