IBM is once again attempting to stake a piece of the desktop. The company is prepping software that will give Big Blue a new play in a field now dominated by Microsoft's Office franchise. But rather than make customers choose between the old and the new, IBM's plan is to provide an offering that allows customers to have the best of both worlds.
The new software, which falls under its newest Workplace release, will let IBM and its partners extend server-side applications as components to the desktop. The company will offer several new tools that bring rich client functionality of messaging, office and collaborative applications that individuals can use in either a connected or disconnected mode. They are slated to ship next quarter.
For customers using Microsoft Office, IBM will offer desktop components that include Office plug-ins as well as open-source-based editors that are largely compatible for typical users with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. At a briefing in New York on Monday, May 10, announcing the new Workplace tools, IBM downplayed this as an attempt to displace Office.
"This is not a competitive battle," said Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive for IBM's software group. "We are focused on what customers need and how we can deliver the broadest range of customer scenarios."
In fact, a user of the Office plug-in would still have to license the software from Microsoft, though this would give the customer a more server-centric approach to managing the application and the data, IBM officials said. Nevertheless, the introduction of the new Workplace tools could have a major shift in the computing landscape, said industry analyst Amy Wohl. "This may be a real market changer," Wohl said. "It's the first serious attempt to try to offer an alternative to PC-centric office as an architecture." While Sun offers its Linux-based StarOffice as an alternative as well, that is also desktop centric, although Wohl said Sun is readying a server-based version of its own.
Indeed, IBM's sites are much broader than going after Office. Its latest move could introduce a new model of computing bridging the old client-server world with more modern thin-client Web-based computing models. The new Workplace tools, which ship next quarter, extend IBM's WebSphere middleware to the desktop and to mobile clients. This will enable partners to leverage much of the work developing server-based and Web applications and extend them to desktops, notebooks, PDAs and other mobile devices.
For example, developers of Siebel applications could extend applications that would give individuals access to the application and data, whether connected or offline. A Siebel user could run the application offline, and when reconnecting to a WebSphere server, it would synchronize the data as well as any changes made to the application. Both the server and the client update each other when connecting.
Several partners announced plans to support the new tool set, including Adobe Systems, Blue Martini, Colligo Networks, PeopleSoft, PureEdge Solutions, Relavis, and Siebel, among a handful of others. Customers that plan to deploy the apps include Guardian Life Insurance, Prudential and Whirlpool.
Among the new deliverables IBM announced include:
IBM Workplace Client Technology, Rich Edition: The key foundation for providing full-function clients that support Windows, Linux and MacOS, the software consists of a client component that includes a developer tool that will let partners provision reusable software components that synchronize between the client and server. Built on the open-source Eclipse framework, it will support centralized management and provisioning of components and data to distributed clients. The tool set also lets programmers define context, so that only software components needed for a certain function or task are distributed to the client when needed, such as a claim form in an insurance-processing application.
For mobile users, IBM Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition 5.7 supports just about any handheld, mobile phone and other devices, including vehicle-navigation systems, such as OnStar. The new release provides support for embedded Linux and the Simple Widget Toolkit, or SWT, a more graphical user interface, as well as improved performance over the most recent release.
Among the application components IBM is readying are Workplace Messaging, Workplace Documents, Workplace Team Collaboration and Workplace Collaborative Learning.
The software will be priced on a subscription-based model starting at $2 per user per month. Additional application components will cost $1 per user per month. Although IBM has lined up several partners for the new Workplace tools, it will be some time before its widely suited for IBM's larger business partner community. "It's not 100 percent channel-ready," said Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBM's Lotus Software. He said those partners interested in getting a jump start should look at the tools on IBM's Developerworks site.