IBM Reenters the Workgroup Computing Wars

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While IBM and its Business Partners may be the leading vendors of solutions that manage back-office functions, they have failed to overcome Microsoft's dominance of front-office software. However, IBM is not giving up on the departmental computing market. Indeed, with its latest Workplace announcement, Big Blue is stepping up its assault on Microsoft and other vendors that sell workgroup computing solutions.

For those of you who have not read my previous articles about this topic, Workplace is IBM's platform for delivering workgroup computing solutions via WebSphere Portal Server. IBM is not positioning Workplace as a complete alternative to Microsoft Office, as it has no intent of offering word processing or spreadsheet software on the platform. However, IBM is positioning Workplace as an alternative to Office for boosting workgroup productivity. As such, Workplace includes software for messaging, collaboration, Web conferencing, content management, and other tasks that require coordination across multiple people in a team. These are the same tasks that Microsoft supports with its Office System family of server-based products, which includes SharePoint Portal Server, Content Management Server, and Live Communications Server. Workgroups can access Office System applications via Office 2003, which is the primary user interface to their services.

Last week, IBM turned up the competitive heat on Microsoft by formally announcing Workplace Services Express V2.0. Despite its version number, Workplace Services Express is a new offering that combines multiple Workplace modules into a single package for small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers. The package--which installs on a single Intel server running Windows 2000, Windows 2003, or Linux--includes services for email, instant messaging, document collaboration, and document management. Users access these services through virtually any Web browser via single sign-on. Once inside, they can work in "team spaces" that they create for various projects, such as developing a sales forecast. Workplace Services Express includes prebuilt templates that workgroups can use to customize their team spaces.

One feature that distinguishes Workplace Services Express from previous Workplace packages is its clever integration with Microsoft Exchange and Office. This allows users to access and edit their Exchange-based mail, calendar, and address books from Workplace Services Express. Moreover, when users need to edit Office documents, Workplace automatically opens the necessary Microsoft applications and stores the edited results on its server. This feature is available on Windows PCs running Office 2000 or 2003.

As this brief description indicates, IBM is positioning Workplace Services Express as a direct competitor to Microsoft's Office System. As part of this positioning, IBM claims that while Workplace Services Express runs on a single server, an equivalent Office System deployment requires multiple servers. Since many companies install Windows applications on separate servers, this could often be true. IBM also claims that Workplace Services Express is easier to work with than Office System, which may require users to visit multiple Web sites and use different passwords to access services. I would grant that Office System is not as good at integrating the tasks that Workplace Services Express performs. However, Office System features much deeper integration with Office 2003 and other Microsoft applications than IBM's offering does.

In short, IBM is targeting Workplace Services Express at SMB firms that find Office System to be too complicated or expensive to support. IBM believes that such companies will value the simplicity of a browser-based, network-centric approach to workgroup computing. In such companies, Workplace would become the interface through which users perform all tasks. This would relegate Office applications to being editing tools within Workplace environments.

The Prospects for Workplace Services Express

While IBM's vision for workgroup computing could appeal to many SMB customers, selling the vision will be an uphill battle. One of the biggest obstacles IBM faces is the dominance of Microsoft Outlook among users for the cornerstones of workgroup computing--messaging, calendaring, and contact management. As Thomas Stockwell's excellent article about Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook pointed out last week, Outlook is incredibly difficult to dislodge once it becomes established in an organization. If Lotus Notes cannot dislodge Outlook, I doubt that Workplace will do any better.

In addition, IBM has its work cut out for it to recruit distribution channels for Workplace Services Express. The company anticipates that it will recruit many of those channels from its network of Lotus resellers. Over the last several years, however, that network has languished because of fierce competition from Microsoft and a difficult transition to a WebSphere-based development and runtime environment. It will be tough for IBM to reenergize its Lotus partners around Workplace after the trials that they have endured.

Despite these obstacles, I believe that Workplace Services Express will gradually gain a foothold in the SMB market. If IBM continues to dedicate its resources to recruiting ISVs that serve SMB customers, it will gradually build a development community around Workplace. Such a community, like the Lotus community that preceded it, would create solutions that build marketing momentum around Workplace. In addition, I expect that Workplace will fare well in emerging economies where many SMB firms have little to no investment in Office.

Given its prospects, I believe that Workplace will warrant the attention of iSeries customers in the near future. That will especially be the case when IBM ships a release of Workplace for the iSeries during the first half of next year. I'll keep you informed as the announcement date draws near, so stay tuned.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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