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IBM Finally Has A Desktop Suite For This Century

IBM has tried repeatedly to weaken the market dominance of Microsoft's Office Suite. A decade ago it was the Lotus SmartSuite, and more recently the ill-conceived IBM Workplace. It recently killed off Workplace, which just may save the life of Lotus Notes/Domino. But now it's trying again with something called the
February 13, 2007
IBM has tried repeatedly to weaken the market dominance of Microsoft's Office Suite. A decade ago it was the Lotus SmartSuite, and more recently the ill-conceived IBM Workplace. It recently killed off Workplace, which just may save the life of Lotus Notes/Domino. But now it's trying again with something called the Open Client offering. It's the wrong package for the wrong market, but with some changes it just might work.The Open Client offering (OCO?) is aimed at the corporate desktop marketplace with a Chinese menu of mix-and-match applications that includes IBM's Lotus Sametime and the forthcoming Lotus Notes 8 software for communications and calendar, a customized version of the OpenOffice.org desktop suite; the Firefox browser, and an an added secret ingredient, Lotus Expeditor. Open Client will run on Windows, the two Linux distros most widespread in the corporate world (Red Hat's Linux Desktop and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop), and later this year, Mac OS X.

The key to this puzzle is the Lotus Expeditor. The Expeditor has been described as something like Java, which isn't quite right, and as a cross-platform application environment, which isn't exactly wrong. Most of all, it is the good end to a bad process.

When IBM decided to embrace standards and open-source software a few years ago, it also invested heavily in the Eclipse platform, a Java-based platform for plug-in tools for application development. Eclipse was first touted as an app-dev tool for Workplace, then used to develop a "rich" (read "Java-based stand-alone") Workplace client that nobody was much interested in, and finally used to reinvent the Lotus Notes client itself as a set of Eclipse plug-ins -- that's Notes 8, currently in a closed beta test.

To the extent that Lotus Expeditor can be described, it is the back-end pieces of the cross-platform support for the Lotus applications. IBM Linux VP Scott Handy calls it "client-side middleware" in the InformationWeek.com article -- a sort of runtime foundation that lets code written to it run on several operating systems and appear as a native application. (The Notes development team should be particularly good at this. Over the years few other groups of application developers have built functionality for so many OSes.)

IBM had rewritten the OpenOffice.org suite as Eclipse plug-ins, and even integrated them with Workplace, so it's natural that the OpenOffice apps should be adapted to Expeditor.

So IBM will once again make a run at its corporate clients, trying to talk them out of Microsoft Office, and once again it will offer them a product with a huge hole in the middle. There's no operating system in the package. Why in the world does IBM key shying away from offering the one product that would really make it competitive with Microsoft among its own best customers?

Open Client would be a much more attractive product if it came as a complete package. Clean machine, one install, one license, one configuration. What's not to like? It could give corporate customers who standardize on another OS the option of using it, but why not put a Linux package on the Open Client disk?

And then, why not put it in a box and sell it at retail? Why not offer an OEM version to system builders? Why not take advantage of the confusion over Vista the same way Microsoft exploited the confusion over Notes and Workplace?

It's a consumer marketplace these days. Corporations aren't spending on IT. So why not use a classic strategy: establish Open Client as a low-cost, light-weight easy-to-deal-with alternative to Big Microsoft, and then gently push it into the corporate marketplace through the back door via consumers and the SMB market, buyers who would love an alternative to Office.

With some Linux in the box and the right price tag, Open Client could be just the right weapon for a good old-fashioned price war.