When IBM landed at the LinuxWorld conference earlier this month, it had two main objectives. First, it wanted to build enthusiasm for its new industry-based approach to Linux solution development. Second, it wanted to promote the use of Linux workstations as a viable alternative to Windows clients. While IBM may meet with limited success on the latter objective, its work on both fronts will help to keep the company at the forefront of the open-source movement.
In an announcement that marked a major strategy shift, IBM told LinuxWorld attendees that it will now focus its efforts on bringing vertical industry solutions to market on Linux. Over the last several years, IBM has done much to foster the development of horizontal Linux solutions in areas such as messaging, collaboration, and Web serving. By expanding its focus to cover vertical solutions, the vendor is betting that a critical mass of companies is ready to deploy core business applications on Linux.
To execute on its vertical industry focus, IBM is handing over responsibility for many of its Linux initiatives to its industry teams. These teams have been working for almost two years to help software vendors build vertical solutions on IBM's middleware. While some of these solutions already run on Linux, there was no formal program in place to promote Linux as an industry solution platform. Starting this month, however, IBM will have formal objectives for creating such solutions in seventeen industries: aerospace, automotive, banking, chemical and petroleum, consumer products, education, electronics, energy and utilities, financial markets, government, healthcare, insurance, life sciences, media and entertainment, retail, telecommunications, and travel and transportation.
To achieve their Linux objectives, each industry team will engage with solution providers through programs such as IBM's PartnerWorld Industry Networks (PWIN). Each team will help solution providers to create Linux applications that address specific industry problems, such as risk management in the banking industry. Most of these problems are the same ones that IBM's industry teams have been addressing with solution providers since PWIN was launched 18 months ago. What is different now is that these teams will dedicate resources to helping PWIN members deliver vertical solutions on Linux.
Speaking of PWIN, customers should know that IBM has been quietly turning this program into its most important instrument for going to market with industry solution providers. Last month, for instance, the company announced that it will gradually expand the program to include not only software developers, but also system integrators, consultants, and value-added resellers. By doing so, IBM intends to get a much larger portion of its partner ecosystem focused on solving vertical industry problems. The company's research indicates that industry solutions will grab the lion's share of IT spending over the next several years.
Desperately Seeking Desktops
At LinuxWorld, IBM also advanced the thesis that Linux desktops can be ideal clients for many workers, especially those that use them to perform fixed functions. In defense of its thesis, IBM demonstrated how companies can use its Domino/Notes and Workplace products to create Linux-based collaboration solutions. The company also announced three products to expand the functionality of Domino/Notes and Workplace on Linux clients:
- Lotus Domino Web Access on Firefox enables any workstation running the Firefox Web browser to access Domino functions such as email, calendaring, and business applications. Firefox is a popular browser for Linux clients.
- A Lotus Notes plug-in for Linux will enable Linux desktops to run Notes applications within IBM's Workplace Managed Client. This same client will provide the interface through which users will access applications in Notes 7.0, otherwise known as "Hannover." IBM will ship Notes 7.0 next year.
- IBM also joined with Ericom Software to announce the latter vendor's PowerTerm WebConnect for IBM Workplace Software. This plug-in enables users of Workplace Managed Client running on Linux desktops to access multiple types of applications, including Windows software running on Windows Terminal Servers.
Through these and other products, IBM is beefing up the collaborative capabilities of Linux desktops and giving them a way to access Windows applications as well. The offerings could be particularly attractive to companies that rely heavily on Notes or Workplace and have users that seldom log on to other applications.
While such users could be candidates for Linux desktops, IBM faces an uphill battle to convince most companies to try open-source clients. Today, most companies have hundreds of packaged and in-house Windows applications running in their front offices. While some users may never need these applications, there is always a chance that they will have to access them someday and that when they do, they will not be able to run them from a Linux client. This is one of the main reasons that Linux has fared so poorly on the desktop. As a testament to that fact, Gartner Group recently reported that in a survey of attendees at two of its recent conferences, just over 1% of users were running Linux desktops.
While IBM has slim chances of gaining a sizable share of the desktop market, it does not need such a victory to maintain the standing of Linux or to keep capitalizing on the operating system. Through the billions of dollars that IBM has invested in the open-source movement, it has played a key role in making Linux an operating system of choice for servers. It has helped Linux transform itself from a "quick and dirty" environment for infrastructure workloads to a platform for mission-critical middleware. The next step is for Linux to support core business applications, and IBM is positioning itself to be a leader in that logical evolution. That bodes well for users of IBM's iSeries, as many of those new applications will undoubtedly run on the server.
Lee Kroon is a Senior Industry Analyst for Andrews Consulting Group, a firm that helps mid-sized companies manage business transformation through technology. You can reach him at