IBM Unveils Workplace Client Technology

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Big Blue has announced software that allows companies to deliver Web applications from a server to desktops, notebooks, and PDAs.

Workplace Client Technology, part of IBM's Lotus Workplace strategy, is seen as a competitive offering to Microsoft's Office suite, which runs only on Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

IBM software head Steve Mills outlined at a press event in New York Monday how the Workplace platform can be used as a hub to deliver to end users a variety of applications that are centrally managed on servers, including applications from Microsoft's Office suite.

Using this technology, users can access e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet, and database products on a server even though those programs are not installed on their own computer. Running the Lotus Workplace applications from a server, and not on the desktop, gives workers access to their personal suite of applications and data no matter where or what device they access it from.

Server-Side Savings

For IT departments, having software applications located on one server makes performing software updates, patches, and management a snap.

"The real savings are on people and productivity inside the enterprise. PCs and devices are cheap. That's not where the savings are," Mills said. "The more we can speed up the human side of the business processes, the more economic benefit is delivered to our customers."

Microsoft dominates the desktop. But IBM hopes to compete by allowing companies to deliver application suites to non-Windows computers. IBM's Workplace products are being developed to work with Windows, Linux, Unix, Macintosh, and handheld operating systems such as PalmSource and Symbian.

IBM names Adobe, PeopleSoft, and Siebel Systems as companies considering making their applications available through IBM's client management software.

What the software won't do currently 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.

Apps on the Go

The first two business processes IBM wants to address with Workplace are messaging and document management. For messaging, it will use the upcoming 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 whether 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.

Using the Workplace Client Technology Micro Edition, Nokia's forthcoming Nokia 9500 Communicator phone/handheld computer, due in September, will run the Workplace software to enable access to enterprise applications, executives said.

Middleware Redux

IBM's strategy isn't new--it's a variation on the thin-client vision Oracle and Sun Microsystems touted in the '90s, and that Hewlett-Packard said last year it would like to revisit.

"What's new is the fact that IBM is pulling it all together," said independent technology analyst Amy Wohl. She points out that IBM's Workplace customers will still have to license every application they deliver to their users.

She expects Workplace to attract the interest of large companies exploring the idea of centrally managed desktops. She also anticipates that 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.

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

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