IBM’s Server-centric Software (continued)

There’s been a lot more discussion on IBM’s recent announcement. Business Week writes:

A confluence of factors could conspire to make Workplace the first legitimate mass-market competitor to Microsoft’s Office software suite. That, in turn, could have far ranging consequences. It might open up a wave of competition to the core Windows operating system itself.

In a nutshell, Workplace takes Microsoft Office and moves it to a server. This isn’t a new concept. Two of tech’s top CEOs, Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy, and Oracle’s Lawrence Ellison, have long espoused the idea of moving desktop software into the back office. And dozens of Internet startups were launched around the idea of delivering complex software capabilities through a Web browser and a Net connection.

Most failed, but several have done well, including, which delivers so-called customer-relationship-management software over the Net. Even IBM has been pushing the concepts behind Workplace for several years, calling it “utility computing” and rolling out these capabilities in a more limited fashion.

The model’s attraction is clear. Workplace administrators will need to service only a single machine, the server that houses the software. The only thing users need to run Workplace is stripped-down software installed on their PCs and a fast connection to a corporate network or the Internet. By extension, users don’t have to worry about complicated software upgrades or installations, let alone the constant problems that come from conflicts between different programs installed on desktop PCs.

In the past, attempts at network computing on desktops didn’t work because broadband Internet connectivity wasn’t ubiquitous. The link back to the network data center — where software like Workplace runs — was slower than the Lincoln Tunnel coming back into Manhattan after a holiday weekend.

Now the growth of wireless broadband networks has made speedy access common in business environments such as convention centers, airports, and hotels, which allows applications such as Workplace to appeal to workers on the go. And a new wave of wireless data services that run at close to broadband speeds could soon make high-velocity connectivity nearly ubiquitous in major cities and for large swathes of rural America.

Another factor in Workplace’s favor is the growing realization that Microsoft Office is about 95% overkill for the average desktop user. Most folks use Office for basic word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, and collaboration software that helps them sync up and talk to co-workers and partners. But very few use any of those programs to anywhere near their full capabilities.

This has led more and more chief technology officers to ask why they’re paying so much for Office when they take advantage of so little of its impressive but unnecessary capabilities. A simplification trend will build as companies strip down desktop software and give employees only what they need, which in many cases is a Web browser and an advanced e-mail program that incorporates some word processing capabilities — and not much more.

Amy Wohl had a more detailed analysis in her newsletter:

IBM has been listening to its customers, particularly its enterprise (large) customers who are implementing the portal approach to managing the distribution of software and information to their employees. Based on these conversations, IBM announced [recently] a different approach to providing office function, a genuine re-invention of the office. To understand requires that you forget that you are (probably) reading this on your PC and think not about how things are, c. 2004, but how they might be, moving into the future.

The IBM Workplace is a centrally managed, server-centric world. Function is located on central servers, managed by middleware and then distributed, via client middleware (a new concept) to whatever device the user happens to be employing a desktop, a laptop, or a mobile device such as a PDA, a tablet, a smart phone, or a smart car. The IBM Workplace is designed to distribute function and information between its server and any enabled client.

IBM has already built a portlet for Microsoft Office Suite. It permits an Office user to take immediate advantage of Document Management without changing anything about the Office application, adding automatic replication of files to the server and document management. This is an important idea because it means a company with many Microsoft Office users can choose to implement Workplace without the need to displace its Office users. They can continue to use Microsoft Office, adding the additional functionality of Documents.

The set of componentized office applications IBM is offering as part of its Messaging and Document Management applications are derived from the open source code. This means the level of functionality and interoperability provided by the IBM text editor, the spreadsheet editor, and the graphics (presentation) editor, are equivalent to that found in OpenOffice (or Suns StarOffice). Wed estimate that today at about 75% of the functionality of Microsoft Office for the equivalent applications, increasing with each new release of OpenOffice. (Microsofts office suite, in its various versions, includes other applications, such as a personal data base, and note and web editors, not included in the IBM offering.)

Because these componentized editors exist ONLY as part of the server software offering (and not as a shrink-wrapped or downloadable office suite), they are not available to an individual user, working in a PC without server environment. On the other hand, once they are downloaded to the users computer (desktop, laptop, or mobile device), he may use them (and other elements of the Workplace) in disconnected mode, without continuous access to the server connection. Whenever the IBM Workplace user is working in connected mode, additional server-based function becomes available and any work (emails in the out basket, new documents to be stored on the server), will be synchronized and processed. Likewise, new email will be downloaded, new information will become available, and new software (or upgrades and patches) will be automatically applied.

IBM is going to focus this product at Enterprise and the high-end of the mid-Market (IBMs definition of mid-Market is companies with 100 to 1,000 employees.), at least for a while. But this product will be equally appealing, we believe, to smaller organizations. Much smaller ones. Wed guess that IBM will have to figure out how its going to handle the go-to-market strategy for that. Partners will obviously be involved and, wed suspect, some vertical segmentation. (In any case, IBM plans vertical offerings in a number of markets.)

What wed really like to see is a hosted offering for the SMB market, perhaps connected to IBMs recent announcement of a hosted systems management offering for SMB PC buyers, adding office services to system management.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.