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IBM Workplace - A Good Thing for Linux?

Thin vs. Thick Client

  • May 13, 2004
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

IBM Workplace, a new application management model launched this week, is bound to spell changes ahead for Linux developers, administrators, and desktop users. Just what kind of impact should the Linux community expect?

Not all that surprisingly, IBM officials claim that the effects on Linux are will be largely positive. For their part, though, industry analysts are cautiously optimistic, too.

Rolled out with considerable fanfare on Monday in New York City, Workplace is being touted mainly as a way for companies to replace Web browsers with crossplatform client software, for better security and manageability across both mobile and desktop environments.

The new environment is aimed mostly at large enterprises. "But SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses) can certainly benefit, too," maintained Alistair Rennie, IBM's director of on-demand management and strategy, during a meeting at an IBM press event.

Since Workplace is based on Eclipse, an IBM-spearheaded crossplatform IDE (integrated development environment), it's a good bet that Linux developers should be able to widen their markets, according to some observers. Moreover, desktop users can probably anticipate the availability of more apps for Linux.

"Lack of a compelling desktop environment and application suite continues to be a limiting factor for Linux. IBM Workplace brings a rich set of next-generation portal capabilities to Linux and helps to enhance the Linux desktop," observed David Cearley, senior VP and director of research at The Meta Group.

Analysts also warn, however, that much will depend on how well Workplace fares in the overall business software marketplace. "The use of the Eclipse open framework model establishes a very interesting center of gravity for developing a Linux application environment. These initiatives begin to deliver more fully on the initial 'write once deploy anywhere' promise of Java. However, support by a wide range of ISVs to plug into Eclipse and support IBM Workplace will be (crucial) to its ultimate success. The next 12 to 18 months will be critical. IBM must generate momentum while Microsoft's Longhorn remains largely unavailable," according to Cearley.

"If Workplace experiences strong uptake, I would expect that a wide range of enterprise app vendors, IVRs, systems integrators, etc. will be looking for folks with Eclipse and J2EE skill sets," predicted Tamey K. Takahashi, an analyst at The Radacati Group.

Meanwhile, network managers will find it easier to deploy and administer Linux apps within crossplatform environments, according to Rennie.

Workplace expands upon a number of bits of pieces already existing in the IBM software infrastructure, pointed out Christian Hunt, a software engineer in IBM's Pervasive Computing Group. These pieces include IBM WebSphere Portal, IBM Everyplace mobile management software, and the already released Lotus Workplace collaborative environment.

Initially, Workplace will revolve around two client-side software architectures. The new Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition, is meant for pervasive computing environments such as cell phones, PDAs, and speech-enabled automotive systems. IBM and Nokia, for example, are already working on a micro client for an upcoming Nokia phone.

The new IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging and IBM Lotus Workplace Documents, on the other hand, are geared to delivering a "rich client experience" to the desktop.

The client-side software already supports 18 different desktop operating environments, running the gamut from Symbian and Linux to Windows and Unix, according to Rennie.

"We'll be releasing other client software, too," he added. Rennie declined to elaborate, though, on that particular point.

According to Hunt, Workplace is built on Eclipse, and it uses the same sort of plug-in architecture. Workplace, though, runs at a different layer in the software stack.

Some of Workplace's architectural underpinnings, particularly the gateways, are presently based almost exclusively on Linux, Hunt added.

How will Workplace heighten security? For one thing, communications will be encrypted between the client software and middleware running on the WebSphere server, Rennie said.

Yet Ron Sebastian, senior architect in IBM's Lotus Development, cited another sort of security measure. "Security shouldn't have to be just about the OS. If you're concerned about security, you can run a (Microsoft) Word or Powerpoint document inside Workplace Documents, without even needing to have Windows installed on the desktop," he said during a demo.

Analysts don't think IBM is stepping back a whit from its previous advocacy for Linux. "IBM has always been very pragmatic about the existence of multiple operating systems in general and Windows in particular. If anything, this announcement is an example of IBM's commitment to Linux, insofar as it provides a platform upon which a future Linux desktop environment may emerge to compete with the Windows desktop environment," said Meta Group's Cearley.

"IBM still has a strong focus on Linux. Workplace takes an OS-agnostic approach because the Workplace Client software is based on the platform-independent Eclipse framework," according to Radicati's Takahashi. Yet "IBM doesn't want to porray the software as a Linux-only solution, but instead as a versatile thing client for a variety of desktop and mobile platforms, including both Windows and Linux," he noted.

Analysts do acknowledge, though, that Workplace will serve as another weapon in IBM's anti-Microsoft arsenal. "I do believe that in the long run, IBM hopes Workplace wil take the place of desktop-based productivity apps--and of course when we speak of desktop productivity apps, we are really looking at one vendor. However, in the short term, I think that IBM will position Workplace as a cost effective method of deploying productivity software to Linux machines," according to Takahashi.

Agreed Cearley: "Providing basic alternatives to Office functionality for occasional users, promoting the integration of these productivity features with enterprise applications, and enabling users to interoperate easily with Microsoft Office documents weaknens the Microsoft lock-in," he said.

Cearley also predicted, however, that IBM Workplace will not take on Microsoft Office directly. "That would be foolish," he said. "IBM Workplace Documents is not a direct competitor to Microsoft Office and is not a realistic alternative for all users. Keep inmind that the issue is not simpl feature/function compatibility. There is he sunk investment in licenses and, more importantly, the cost of training."

Right out of the gate, Workplace does give users another way of getting to Lotus Notes from Linux. Although Notes is still without a Linux client, a Lotus product released in January--Domino Web Access for Linux--provides support for Linux, Sebastian said.

Now, Linux desktop users will be able to use Lotus Workplace Documents for accessing Notes, according to Sebastian.

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