May 11, 2004

IBM goes head to head against Sun with own Java portal desktop

Author: Chris Preimesberger

So is it true that Sun Microsystems is now leveraging one of its bitterest rival/partners, IBM, to be its new marketing arm for the desktop products division? Sure sounds like it, if you talk to Sun Vice President of Desktop Solutions Curtis Sasaki.

"IBM knows how to market, we all know that. But the more IBM evangelizes to its customers to look at alternatives for desktop management and applications, the better we (Sun) look," he told NewsForge Tuesday. "We've been there and done that, and so has IBM in the past. I'm not sure what's really new here."

Here's the background: Big Blue announced this week it is about to give another shot at producing and selling a portal-based, server-centered desktop system for multiclient corporate customers. This system, called Workplace Client, will run on Windows and Linux at the start, with support for Macintosh systems coming later this year.

Eclipse-based platform runs on Windows, Linux

Workplace Client was introduced last January at IBM's Lotusphere show and is scheduled to be released in June. This is an open source, Eclipse- and Java-based platform that uses a WebSphere layer alongside a relational database for client devices. If used with IBM servers, it allows offline and synchronized access to a number of applications -- including the OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, and StarOffice suites.

Workplace will offer document management and messaging for starters. For document management, it will use new Lotus Workplace Documents. For messaging, it will use the next version of its Lotus Workplace Messaging. Both are due for release by next month. What Workplace will not do is let third-party applications run on operating systems not supported by the applications. For example, Microsoft Office will still only work on clients running Windows or MacOS.

The idea of running a highly managed, thin-client desktop for call centers and other corporate uses is nothing new. It's a repackaging of what Oracle Corp., Sun, and IBM had in their product catalogs in the '90s as the wave of the future. Hewlett-Packard Co. said a year ago that it is also considering offering a version of this for its own customers.

"This is really kind of odd," Sasaki said. "I've talked with some of the IBM people, and they tell me they're really going after another portal-based solution. They tried this about three years ago (in another form), and it didn't really work very well for them."

Timing not right in 2001?

Perhaps the timing wasn't right in 2001. After all, companies were starting to downsize and/or go out of business altogether during the time immediately following the IT bubble burst and weren't interested in cutting-edge office products.

"Maybe, but IBM is pretty savvy about how to market and when to market. It's just baffling to me," Sasaki said.

Sasaki recalled how Sun attempted this same thin-client idea with StarPortal in the late '90s. "We poured many man-years of engineering into that project," he said. "We basically brought word processing into portal (Web) access. What's strange about the new IBM portal is that it is not fully managed. It still has to run on a Windows or Linux system, and it won't have the lockdown that admins need to make sure all users are conforming to company rules. There is not enough administrative control here."

For example, Sasaki said, with the new Workplace system in a call center, a user can use the workstation much more easily for personal reasons, such as surfing the Web or "putting pictures of the family up for wallpaper. Call centers are carefully monitored for how many calls are serviced per second, and if the admins don't have full control of all the stations, there will be great losses in productivity as a result."

Possible desktop price war coming?

IBM general manager of Lotus software Ambuj Goyal said the cost of Workplace would be $24 U.S. per user, per year. This is a key reason why Sun is taken aback by this news: Sun's new Java Desktop System, which runs on machines using Linux, MacOS, or Solaris systems, costs $50 per seat per year.

Does this signal a price war in the corporate desktop battlefield? Possibly, and not just between Sun and IBM.

"Well, Microsoft has been feeling the heat, too, and is changing its licensing," said independent IT analyst John Koenig of Half Moon Bay, Calif. "In Asia, they're now pricing their at-home Windows licensing to $15 -- for customers who already have a corporate license. They've been forced to revisit their price structure."

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