IBM Hones WebSphere Portal

Seeks to offer Web alternative to Microsoft Office.

IBM has charted a course for its WebSphere Portal software that officials say will lessen enterprises reliance on Microsoft Corp.s Office productivity applications while deepening the ties between the portal and IBMs Lotus applications.

The first step on that course is WebSphere Portal 5.0, due next quarter, which will feature new productivity components that will allow users to create, view and edit rich text, spreadsheets and presentations via the portal interface, said officials at IBMs Lotus Software division, in Cambridge, Mass.

The components will allow developers to extend applications to users via the portal without requiring Office on users desktops. End users will also not be required to leave the portal environment.

WebSphere Portal 5.0 components will include applications for business-to-consumer and business-to-employee applications, as well as partner portals.

While not providing as much full-featured capabilities as Office applications, the productivity components will give users a better presentation layer than existing third-party Web productivity applications and custom-built solutions, officials said.

Its a powerful concept, according to Dave Taylor, senior systems analyst at T. Rowe Price Group Inc., in Baltimore. "The rich-text-over-a-browser issue is huge," said Taylor. "Ive never seen it done correctly. If [IBM] can pull that off, or most of it, it would be a major step forward in what developers can offer in browser-based applications."

But after viewing a demonstration of the technology, Taylor is not convinced that it goes far enough, describing the productivity components in WebSphere Portal as "yet another fancy text/HTML editor."

"Its far short of what our customers are asking for," Taylor said. "What they really want is a [Lotus] Notes rich-text field in a browser."

IBM officials said that over time, WebSphere Portal will be the de facto interface for Lotus applications, especially as Lotus develops its new Workplaces platform, which shares WebSpheres Java-based architecture.

WebSphere Portal also will provide a single point of access, with single sign-on for all Lotus applications.

New Domino portlets that allow access to Domino applications through WebSphere Portal and allow nondevelopers to extend Domino applications into WebSphere Portal will be delivered around midyear as part of WebSphere Portal 4.2, officials said.

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