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

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.

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TOPICS: IBM
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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.

Topic: IBM

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45 comments
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  • Well, that bites

    All I needed to start me gagging was seeing that this is modeled on Lotus Notes. What's the point of having standards-based documents if the fool things are locked away in a binary blob, never to return without "interpretation?" Notes can't even keep an RFC822 e-mail message intact.

    Then there's the automatic update push. If it's anything like the same feature in Notes, every time someone tweaks the server there are going to be clients dropping like flies all over the place.

    I swear, one of the happiest thoughts I have about leaving $EMPLOYER is that I can get away from Bloated Goats, and I know a lot of IBM employees who share the feeling. Normally IBM does better market research than this, but maybe Someone Very Senior has a large dose of ego involved.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • I think in IBM everybody has EGO problems.

      From cleaning lady to CEO.
      computer_man
      • Perhaps, but not compared to those at M$

        I've met many from IBM and others from MS - IMHO the IBMers are far more humble than those from Redmond.
        IT Makes Sense
    • as per below...

      Workplace is available as a Rich and/or Thin client - delivered either via Browser or on through a set of Eclipse based components to your desktop - it does not care what the underlying OS is (Linux, Mac, Win etc). It is not tied to Notes in any manner, other than it can handle desktop apps as well - Notes, MS Office - or deliver up back end apps (ie: oracle, sap, citrix). The productivity components, such as Word Editor and Spreadsheet etc are based on Open Office.org. This is all roles based - so you get delivered to your desktop or browser what is determined based on your role.

      Just thought I'd help clarify some of the confusion. Now onto the next round of insults :-)
      s#
  • Anytime you add Java

    you need the $15,000/cpu Websphere to go with it! That equates to 200 copies of StarOffice . . .
    Roger Ramjet
    • IBM is no different from MS

      They both want to pull you into their marketing grasp and collect those licensing fees.
      balsover
  • Re: OASIS

    "(OASIS isn't really a standards body)"

    Neither is Microsoft ;).
    CobraA1
  • Killer, killer, killer

    What is this love affair the tech press has with the word killer?

    The best office package that IBM can roll out will not be an MS Office "killer". OpenOffice 2.0 or StarOffice whatever will not be an MS Office "killer". They will most likely "wound" MS Office, but MS Office will survive - at a somewhat lower marketshare.

    The only tech "killer" I've observed in the past few years has been numerous Windows malware programs, and iPod/iTunes.

    And from the looks of it, an iPod "killer" is definitely not available for sale, and apparently not on anyone's drawing board. With the possible exception of Apple's.

    So let's give the word a rest.
    Otto_Delete
  • Even IBM understands colaboration is the key.

    Not that I expect anyone supporting OpenOffice to understand.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • We have had colaboration since late 1996.

      This is really old stuff.
      B.O.F.H.
      • Message has been deleted.

        An_Axe_to_Grind
      • Show me.

        Show me your real time coloaboration in document creation. Come on, I am always willing to learn something old.

        And no, I am not talking about some silly shared document where everyone markes it up over and over hoping no one else changed anything since the last save or read...
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Nothing to show???

          Yeah, I thought not...
          No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Responding to your own posts?

            This would indicate either that you have a bit too much free time (unemployment does that to people) or a complete lack of a life (as indicated by waiting for someone to post). Which is it?
            B.O.F.H.
        • Press release from '96

          http://wp.netscape.com/newsref/pr/newsrelease262.html

          [b]NETSCAPE ANNOUNCES NETSCAPE COMMUNICATOR CLIENT SOFTWARE PRODUCT FOR COMMUNICATION ON THE INTERNET AND INTRANETS

          NEW OPEN EMAIL AND GROUPWARE SOFTWARE INCLUDES: NETSCAPE NAVIGATOR 4.0, NETSCAPE MESSENGER, NETSCAPE COLLABRA, NETSCAPE COMPOSER AND NETSCAPE CONFERENCE[/b]

          MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (October 15, 1996) -- Netscape Communications Corporation (NASDAQ: NSCP) today announced Netscape Communicator, the integrated client software product that users need every day to communicate, share data and access information on Intranets and the Internet. Netscape Communicator is an integrated product for open email, groupware, editing, calendaring and Web browsing on Intranets and the Internet. The new product builds on and includes Netscape's award-winning Netscape Navigator software and reaffirms Netscape's position as a technology leader in the Internet and Intranet market.
          ...
          B.O.F.H.
          • Pinto vs Lexus

            Like saying we've had luxury cars all along like the latest offerings just because the Ford Pinto came with leather seats in 1974 (not that it did).

            Kind of a stretch anyway.........
            nottheusual1
        • Last time I saw real collaboration was ...

          on the Apple II. Apple assigned the file types and created the first group themselves. They then allowed third party vendors to create new file types, submitted to Apple, who then compaired them to the current list of apporved file types. If a duplicate or near duplicate, the vendor was told to use the existing version.

          All of the file formats were published and any vendor to use an existing file type provided they followed the docs.

          Who maintains anything similar on PCs? Certainly not Microsoft! They don't want anyone to know how their files are organized!
          johnlb2002
    • Re: Even IBM understands colaboration is the key.

      [i]Not that I expect anyone supporting OpenOffice to understand.[/i]

      All I see in this post is an insulting swipe at an entire class of office suite users. Why do you do this? What do you think you're contributing? Why do you post messages like this yourself and berate others for not adding aything useful? Why don't you grow up?


      :)
      none none
      • Message has been deleted.

        An_Axe_to_Grind
        • And you are?

          Anyone using '$', juvenile name calling such as troll and mimicking his handle would qualify as the same.

          He states his opinion, you preach your religion. There are many people here that share your choice in software that can state their opinion without a bib.
          balsover