While the big IBM news this last week was in Las Vegas at PartnerWorld, a really interesting announcement was made all the way back across the country in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at IBM Lotus. According to IBM Lotus, IBM and AT&T will be offering a new packaged team collaboration solution specifically aimed at the small and medium business community (SMB).
IBM said it will combine IBM Workplace Services Express with AT&T Managed Internet Service as a complete, one-stop-shopping, out-of-the-box collaboration service, sold and supported by local IBM Business Partners.
What Is IBM Workplace Services Express?
IBM's Workplace Services Express is IBM Lotus' server-managed and role-based platform for collaboration. It includes instant messaging services, document management services, forum messaging, shared server spaces, and other services to enable remotely distant users to share and collaborate in an integrated fashion.
Users create, edit, and share information and documents from their Windows desktop PC, Microsoft Office application, or Web browser. The user's work environment is actually stored on the server so that users can connect with their collaborative documents and business applications virtually from any location. Many of these services are evolved elements of Lotus' previous TeamRoom, Sametime, Notes, and Domino.Doc products. Now, however, these have been integrated together within a portal environment that is highly flexible and compact, yet adaptive enough to fill the needs of the SMB. The integration of these elements into a collaborative services suite makes them highly suitable for removing the barriers that remote offices often experience when they attempt to do significant virtual collaboration of larger projects.
Yet, as important as IBM Workplace Services could become as a collaborative service, IBM must overcome many technical and infrastructural obstacles in the SMB market place. No one questions the need for better collaborative services. The question is: "How can my organization afford the overhead?"
For the SMB organization, the cost of building the networking infrastructure to support a comprehensive collaborative environment can be daunting. Why? Because efficient virtual collaboration requires lots of network bandwidth. And though the cost of bandwidth has plummeted, most SMB organizations are not technically equipped to handle the level of IT complexity required to both create a broadband collaboration network and sustain the communications services that support it. This is not simple ISP integration: As an organization's demands grow, using collaborative services like IBM Workplace can consume increasing amounts of technical telecomm expertise.
For instance, many high-speed broadband telecommunication services offered by various Telco organizations are highly specialized and bureaucratic, while many local Telcos are still legally restricted in the kinds of high speed broadband telecommunications services they can deploy. Just the task of connecting two subsidiary offices to a main headquarters can often lead to high levels of frustration and expense. It's not something that an IT manager of a small organization wants to assign to one or two of scarce technical people. And when things go down, tracking down the cause can be a nightmare of finger-pointing.
That's why this bundling of IBM Workplace and AT&T is so intriguing. By partnering with AT&T, IBM may be lowering the in-house cost of entry for IT while simplifying the requirements for the SMB to make use of IBM's Workplace software.
What Is AT&T Managed Internet Service?
AT&T Managed Internet Service is a dedicated Internet access service that provides business with high-speed Internet access through communications facilities managed by AT&T. They own the network, and they provide the service, end-to-end. Managed Internet Service also provides a robust choice of technical options while simultaneously supplying an IP backbone that supports speeds ranging from 56 Kbps to 2.6 Gbps. And it's not just one access method: AT&T can mix and match a selection of access methods--including frame relay, ATM, T1 SINA, or Channelized T3--and deliver them pretty seamlessly to the customer. In addition, AT&T has the ability to connect the infrastructure internationally to other facilities overseas.
This kind of capability in a telecommunications provider can be a godsend for the SMB customer that is considering extensive use of collaborative services. It removes the finger-pointing that's often associated with high-speed broadband private connections.
Local Implementation and IBM Business Partners
But still, SMB customers don't want to be stuck without a local representative to help them keep their collaborative networks going. Consequently, IBM--instead of pushing this bundle of services onto IBM Global Services--is enabling local IBM Business Partners to act in the implementation and support of the networks.
In other words, IBM is providing the SMB market with a simple and easy way to build a collaborative, Internet-ready solution for their organization without investing significant time or IT resources.
Best of all, IBM sees this as an "out-of-the-box" solution in which local IBM Business Partners will do the legwork in the SMB's environment, providing the setup knowledge and training the SMB customer will require.
Unique Offering for SMB
According to Ken Bisconti, IBM vice president of Workplace, Portal, and Collaboration, "This is a unique offering in the market and positions AT&T and IBM and our Business Partners to continue to add customer value as IT and IP convergence accelerates. While mid-market customers value IBM and AT&T brands, they prefer to work with local solution providers and regional systems integrators. With the new bundle, IBM Business Partners and AT&T Authorized Agents will have the opportunity to add value and facilitate implementation, integration, and management of the solution."
Just as importantly, the IBM Workplace Services offering demonstrates that IBM does, in fact, have a viable plan for delivering On Demand collaborative services to the SMB. This configuration--packaged middleware, telecomm partnering, Business Partner implementation--is the model by which IBM hopes to expand On Demand offerings in the future to the SMB.
One IBM Business Partner, Mike Fischer, vice president of Enterprise Software and Solutions for MSI Systems Integrators, foresees the impact of this kind of On Demand offering: "The SMB marketplace gets the most value from the IBM and AT&T end-to-end IT solution," Fischer said. "It helps keep cost down, speed implementation, and improve employee productivity, leading to a healthier bottom line."
Reality and the ROI
IBM's proposed IBM Workplace Services bundle is, according to IBM, still currently in a pilot stage but will ultimately be available through local IBM Business Partners and AT&T Authorized Agents. However, what's not clear is the actual cost that the services will command.
While the announced configuration of bundled ISP, IBM software, and local Business Partner representation is alluring, the cost of the complete package may be more than the SMB market will stomach.
Indeed, when IBM first began selling AS/400s, it provided communications support in the form of IBM Systems Engineers (SEs) who worked as liaisons with AT&T SEs to get high-speed communications up and running for many customers. However, when IBM began removing that free SE support (farming it out to local Business Partners instead), IBM discovered that customers weren't willing to pay for the overhead of the third-party's SEs, even if they were IBM Business Partners.
If IBM's partnering with AT&T can actually create a collaboration services market that is truly cost-effective, then the stage will be set for a significant return on investment (ROI) for using the collaborative services into the future. IBM Business Partners might even benefit through the sale and market support of these collaborative services without suffering the need for expensive local technical personnel. It could be a four-way win for everyone: IBM, AT&T, IBM BPs, and even the customer.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.