IBM puts Workplace at centre of managed apps vision

IBM Corp. is looking to broaden its Workplace architecture for component-based application delivery beyond the Lotus portfolio in which Workplace got its start. IBM software head Steve Mills outlined Monday how a forthcoming rich-client platform from IBM can be used as a hub to deliver to end users a variety of applications centrally managed on servers, including applications from Microsoft Corp.’s Office suite.

IBM’s Workplace products won’t save companies money on hardware or software licensing costs: Businesses will still have to license every application they deliver to their users. Instead, Workplace is aimed at increasing productivity and decreasing the labour costs firms bear for managing their desktops, executives said.

“The real savings is on people and productivity inside the enterprise. PCs and devices are cheap. That’s not where the savings are,” Mills said at a press event in New York. “The more we can speed up the human side of the business processes, the more economic benefit is delivered to our customers.”

IBM’s Workplace Client Technology, first discussed in January at IBM’s Lotusphere show and due out this quarter, is an Eclipse-based platform that places on client devices a WebSphere layer and a relational database layer. In conjunction with IBM’s server software, it allows offline and synchronized access to an array of applications.

The strategy isn’t new — it’s a variation on the thin-client vision Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. touted in the ’90s, and which Hewlett-Packard Co. said last year it would like to revisit.

“What’s new is the fact the IBM is pulling it all together,” said independent technology analyst Amy Wohl.

She expects Workplace to attract the interest of large companies exploring the idea of centrally managed desktops. She also anticipates the piecemeal desktop construction Workplace allows will attract corporate interest. Companies can mix and match applications, keeping some workers on Microsoft’s Office applications while adding other users on other applications.

The first two business processes IBM wants to address with Workplace are document management and messaging. For messaging, it will use the upcoming next version of its Lotus Workplace Messaging software; for document management it will offer the newly announced Lotus Workplace Documents software. Both are due out this quarter. Other business processes will be developed soon in conjunction with business partners, executives said.

A plug-in built into Workplace Documents will allow it to manage Microsoft Office files, according to Ken Bisconti, IBM’s vice-president of messaging products. He declined to say if IBM has any beta testers managing Office with Workplace.

IBM’s Workplace products will be available first for Windows and Linux, with Macintosh support coming later in the year. What the software won’t do is allow third-party applications to run on operating systems not supported by the applications — Microsoft Office will still only work on client devices running Windows.

Other IBM partners, including Siebel Systems Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc., will develop plug-ins for accessing their products with Workplace, Bisconti said. Those plug-ins will be priced by the partners. The Office plug-in is part of Workplace Documents at no extra cost, he said.

The Workplace architecture is also intended to support mobile devices, through the Workplace Client Technology Micro Edition. Nokia Corp.’s forthcoming Nokia 9500 Communicator phone/handheld computer, due in September, will run the Workplace software to enable access to enterprise applications, executives said.

IBM’s general manager of Lotus software, Ambuj Goyal, estimated the cost of the IBM Workplace Client Technology at US$24 per user, per year. Based on volume licensing, he projected the cost of Workplace Messaging and Workplace Documents at US$1 per user, per month, though Bisconti said the retail price for those products is US$29 per user for the first year.

Monday’s overview ties the Lotus Workplace software more firmly into IBM’s larger technology stack, establishing a place for what has at times been a somewhat orphaned division of IBM’s software group. Lotus began integrating more tightly with the rest of Big Blue after Goyal’s appointment to head the group, in early 2003. Before taking on Lotus, Goyal served as head of solutions and strategy for IBM’s software group.

“Workplace was in progress when I was head of strategy, whether it was named Workplace or not,” Goyal said Monday. “Our view was, we’re very strong on the back-end of processing. We want to deliver that to the users, but we have to build it in a way so that people don’t have to rip and replace.”

The traditional Lotus base of Notes and Domino customers has eyed with trepidation the rise of Workplace, which has a very different underlying architecture, but Goyal repeated this week the reassurances he offered at Lotusphere. Development will continue on Notes and Domino, and Notes/Domino-based applications will be accessible through Workplace, he said.

In fact, IBM is pushing forward the timeline on integrating Notes and Workplace. Goyal said at Lotusphere that Domino applications would be available via a Workplace portlet in the Notes/Domino release 8, due late 2005. Monday, he said he hopes to have that plug-in ready in release 7, scheduled for the first quarter of next year.

“I’m pushing hard on that,” he said.

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