IBM software targets desktop, devices

IBM Corp. this week made a brash move onto the desktop with the introduction of middleware designed to give corporations alternatives to Microsoft Corp. It also provides the flexibility to run component-based software without sacrificing the sophistication or power of a fat client running natively on a client PC.

Introduced earlier this year as the future client for Lotus’ Workplace collaboration components, Workplace Client Technology now will be used as a foundation technology across its software portfolio. It will be made available to independent software vendors later this year, IBM says. Adobe Systems Inc., PeopleSoft Inc. and Siebel Systems Inc. are already onboard.

“IBM has taken a set of technologies and turned it into a bold initiative — challenge Microsoft on the desktop,” says David Marshak, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group. “The Workplace client is desktop middleware, it’s a re-architecting of the desktop and part of a major play.”

The Workplace Client Technology is built on the Eclipse open source framework and made up of Java-based components, including a small database to support offline data use, a local application server, a synchronization engine and a provisioning engine for dynamic deployments and updates.

Applications components are loaded on top of the middleware and function as true desktop applications. The applications also are accessible when not connected to the network.

Unlike Java applications, the Workplace Client Technology can call into the underlying operating system, ensuring applications maintain the look and feel of the host desktop.

The client technology will run on Windows and Linux. A Macintosh version is planned for later this year.

The middleware model lets administrators centrally manage desktops and dynamically roll out and update applications. A future version of the client technology will allow for the components’ deletion.

The client technology was unveiled in January at the annual Lotusphere conference and is slated to ship next month.

Big Blue last week also introduced the first two application components that would incorporate Workplace Client Technology — the next version of IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging, an e-mail application and the new Workplace Documents for document management that includes support for Microsoft Office formats.

The Documents component could provide an alternative for users who don’t need a fully loaded Windows desktop.

“Microsoft doesn’t need to worry, but they do need to respond,” says Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Forrester Research. “The Workplace announcement positions IBM to do things that traditionally have been key for Microsoft, like applications on the desktop.”

IBM’s twist on client/server computing clashes with Microsoft, which is hoping to combine Web services and future operating system and application technology to create a generation of “smart clients” that blur the lines between server and client.

IBM isn’t just aiming for the desktop. It also introduced Workplace Client Technology Micro Edition for use on handheld and other devices, such as shop-floor terminals and PDAs, so the interface is consistent regardless of the end-user platform.

The Workplace concept, which began with Lotus, was to create a set of server-based collaboration components running on WebSphere Application Server that could be accessed via a browser.

While using a browser with server-based components is still an option, the new client technology adds the flexibility to deploy application logic locally. This taps into the PC’s processing powers and services, and eliminates round trips to the server.

“It’s not just Lotus Workplace anymore. Now it is IBM Workplace, and the technology will be used to support other IBM Software Group products,” says Ken Bisconti, IBM’s vice-president of messaging products. “We believe there will always be some need to have a level of client-side code.”

Bisconti says Lotus Workplace, WebSphere Everyplace and Lotus Notes all will have the new client technology in the future.

The inclusion of Notes is the biggest concern for traditional Notes and Domino customers, many of whom said at Lotusphere that they want assurances that their existing Notes applications will run within the Workplace Client Technology framework, which is planned for delivery in Notes 7.0 early next year.

“Users want to know that the front-end Notes client technology written into their current applications will work,” Seybold’s Marshak says. IBM has said the new technology won’t cause customers to rip and replace current software.

Workplace Client Technology costs US$24 per user. Workplace Messaging and Workplace Documents are US$29 per year.

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