IBM's potential MS-Office killer to roll out by year's end

Summary:Putting two and two together wasn't very difficult.  IBM has practically been joined with Sun at the hip in applying a full court press on the recently OASIS "ratified" (OASIS isn't really a standards body) XML-based Open Document Format for saving files produced by productivity applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.

Putting two and two together wasn't very difficult.  IBM has practically been joined with Sun at the hip in applying a full court press on the recently OASIS "ratified" (OASIS isn't really a standards body) XML-based Open Document Format for saving files produced by productivity applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.  The two were the biggest co-sponsors of of the OASIS-governed initiative.  Both companies have executive bloggers like Bob Sutor (IBM), Tom Glover (IBM), Tim Bray (Sun) and Simon Phipps (Sun) who have given liberal coverage to either the open specification or to the controversy that it has sparked in Massachusetts (where that state's government has established "ODF" as the statewide standard with which all agencies and contractors who do business with them must comply). 

Only something was missing.  

That something is a product from IBM that actually supports ODF.  Currently, it doesn't have one. Sun does in StarOffice and then there's the open source kissing cousin of StarOffice: OpenOffice.org.  IBM never pours the kind of resources it has poured into ODF without there being some master plan. Surely, an ODF-compliant offering must be in the works.  Particularly since Microsoft has already said that current and future editions of Office will not support ODF.  In other words, unless Microsoft changes its mind, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and many of the contractors that work for it are going to be shopping for new, ODF-compliant productivity software relatively soon.  After investing those resources, does anybody really think that IBM is going to let Sun simply walk away with all of the Commonwealth's business?  

 

Time to call IBM.

In an telephone interview earlier today, IBM vice president of Workplace, Portal and Collaboration Products Ken Bisconti told me that IBM not only has an ODF-compliant solution in the works, but that it will also be released by the end of the year. That solution is IBM's Workplace.  Built on top of IBM's Java 2 Enterprise Edition-based Websphere application server stack, Workplace can trace its pedigree to the collaboration technologies found in Lotus Domino/Notes and to Big Blue's portal technologies, typically based on WebSphere.  If there's one common thread to the direction that Microsoft and IBM are taking, it's that collaboration underscores everything knowledge workers do and that at the end of the day, tasks are less about the content that people create (for example word processing documents and spreadsheets) and more about the business process they follow -- all sort of underpinned by the notion of "presence."

In the IBM Workplace scheme of things, that means that your primary interface into "the system" is very portal-like and then, based on who you are, what your job role is, and what device you're using to access the system, specific server-managed componentry is dropped into that portal for usage.  The components can be custom-built components designed to give you access to the parts of a particular business process that your authorized to have access to, or they can be canned ones such as those OpenOffice.org derived productivity components that are currently a part of what can be best described as the beta version of Workplace.  I say beta because currently, the complete package  -- consisting of IBM's Workplace Collaboration Server (email, calendaring, instant messaging, document management, team workspaces, etc.) and the client-side Workplace Managed Client -- is only in the hands of a hundred or so IBM customers who are helping IBM test it and work the bugs out.  Currently, the solution does not support ODF. 

Another key IBM proposition of Workplace, said Bisconti (using the term "server-managed clients"), is that upgrades to the components can be rolled out salesforce.com-style.  In other words, when the components are upgraded, the user simply inherits those upgrades in their personal portal. 

But, by the end of the  year, when IBM officially makes the solution available to any enterprise (typical cost runs in the six digit category), ODF-support will be baked in.  Currently, the Workplace Managed Client (WMC) supports Microsoft's file formats.   What that means, according to Bisconti, is that users who need to convert their Office documents into ODF-compliant ones (the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will soon have this need) will be able to do so by opening them with WMC and then saving them in ODF.

IBM's approach to saving and storage are one of the lynchpins to what makes the entire offering interesting, if not unique.  Using the IBM's Java-based Cloudscape database technology that was recently contributed as open source to the Apache Software Foundation -- users will be able to save their data to the network and, much the same way their portal with all its components follows them everywhere, so too will the storage and everything the user has saved to it.  To Microsoft Office, the Cloudscape-based storage "cloud" just looks like another folder.  The architecture is similar to that of Microsoft's Sharepoint technology in that the core productivity offering (in Microsoft's case, that's Office and in IBM's, we'll just call it WMC) is integrated with a network-based repository. 

The difference, according to Bisconti, is that with Cloudscape, the storage is replicated to the local hard drive.   In more Groove-like fashion than Sharepoint-fashion, this sort of architecture facilitates off-line work when users have no connectivity (perhaps now you see at least one thing that Microsoft saw in Groove that it didn't see in its own Sharepoint, and thus, the acquisition).   Once replicated from local storage to the cloud, anything a user saved to his or her workspace (or to a shared workspace that's available to co-workers) is accessible from wherever else they access their personal portal.  In this respect, IBM Workplace is neither fish (totally a thick client like MS-Office) nor fowl (a completely thin-client).  Although it bears some resemblances in architecture and benefit to very thin-clientesque Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings like salesforce.com and can be accessed from a Web terminal, it takes more than just a browser (more like what's typically found in a PC or notebook) to operate in it's full regalia (particularly when it's supporting a mobile user).

In fact, IBM refers to the technology as "rich-client" technology.  Because it's largely Java-based, primarily requiring the presence of a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), another distinguishing feature of Workplace (by the time it ships) is that it will be available to users running Windows (multiple versions), Linux, Apple's OS X and even some handhelds. I asked Bisconti if Google, which is driving hard at the thin-client deployment of most applications (GoogleTalk and GoogleEarth not included) through the use of technologies like AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) and who is also obviously gunning for the Microsoft Windows+Office franchise, factored into IBM's thinking about similarly driving Workplace to more of a thin-client technology that could disrupt the Microsoft status quo (both in marketshare and architecture). Bisconti carefully positioned IBM as not trying to take down Microsoft.  "We prefer a different articulation," Bisconti said. "If customers have $200  to spend on Microsoft technologies, we'd like to show them how that money can be better spent."  IBM is currently not contemplating the idea of a thin, inexpensive Workplace terminal on the order of what I suggested Google may be thinking about (even more so now that news of Google's "pipe laying" is out).

Bisconti also felt as though the thin-client revolutions being spearheaded by SaaSers like salesforce.com as well as search portals like Google and Yahoo were primarily targeted at consumers and small businesses.  In the same breath however, came another bit of news.  Although Workplace can probably be a multi-tenant solution like salesforce.com where multiple companies share one infrastructure and only the private stuff is partitioned, Bisconti admits that it's definitely not optimized for that environment.  "It's definitely an on-premises solution right now."  But, by the end of next year,  Bisconti expects that to change. When and if that happens, an IBM reseller (or IBM Global Services) could easily do what salesforce.com does: spread the cost of a single instance of what was once an on-premises solution across multiple customers, thereby allowing the new WorkPlace-powered SaaSer to deliver the WorkPlace solution to customers at a fraction of the cost that those customers might otherwise incur if they ran the solutions themselves. 

For example, instead of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts buying multiple instantiations of Workplace for all its agencies, maybe all the agencies (and even the contractors) can share one instance, pay way less than they normally would to run it themselves, and have none of the headaches of keeping systems running, backing them up, restoring them, or any of the other sysadmin headaches.

Meanwhile, in the same way that IBM isn't exactly about to cede a large chunk of business to Sun, it's very  doubtful that Sun is about to wait for IBM to show up with Workplace and steal a bunch of business from right under its nose. (Sun runs a big corporate campus just outside of Boston.)  Annnnd.... unlike everybody else, Sun likes to talk up the idea of how the network is the computer and it happens to have a network terminal -- the Sun Ray -- to back that talk up.  Microsoft of course could practically moot Massachusetts "what do we do next?" discussion by giving in and supporting ODF in MS-Office.

Topics: IBM

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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