IBMs Middleware Challenge

IBM lays down the gauntlet to Microsoft with its new middleware offerings.

IBMs recent Lotus Workplace initiative reinforces the argument that Sun Microsystems has been making lately for its own Java Enterprise System. Both players contend the enterprise IT client needs to be redesigned for the era of pervasive networks and threat-laden environments. Both contend that IT costs can best be controlled and that technical risk can best be contained by bringing applications back to the center.

This is not a frontal assault on the Windows client, even though the time might seem ripe for such an approach. The next generation of Windows is years from delivery, while the costs and the frustrations of administering "thick client" desktops are very much present today.

But IBM has learned from its own experience with OS/2 and from watching Suns experience in trying to position client-side Java as a Windows killer. Attempting to replace Windows invariably turns into promising to be "a better Windows than Windows," and thats a game that only Microsoft ever wins.

This time, IBM is trying a much more subtle approach, attempting to surround and embrace the Microsoft client. In its announcement, IBM unveiled middleware—not operating system or application software—that will run not only on desktops but also on PDAs, shop-floor workstations and other devices. The software is part of the Lotus Workplace platform and is built on the Eclipse framework. IBM also announced Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition Version 5.7: more middleware, described by IBM officials as extending enterprise applications to non-PC devices, as well as managing, updating and installing new services remotely and wirelessly.

IBM officials deny theyre offering an alternative to Microsoft client software. "This is not a Microsoft replacement system," said Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Software Group. "We have created a Microsoft Office plug-in for the rich client," said Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBMs Lotus division. That low competitive profile is matched by a low pricing profile: IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging and IBM Lotus Workplace Documents each will be available for as little as $1 a month per employee.

These announcements follow through on IBMs long-term autonomic computing strategy, which aims to make IT infrastructures far easier to manage. The promised middleware offerings may also provide valuable glue in environments with diverse clients, including those running applications and Suns Java Desktop System.

Enterprise IT buyers should look at these Sun and IBM offerings and wonder if Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and other suppliers are equally committed to the enterprise or if they will instead chase the lucrative consumer-sector margins of the "media hub" and computer gaming markets. If Microsoft does not want to surrender the middleware space to IBM, it will need to enhance its SMS and related offerings. We eagerly await that response.

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