IBM has broadened its Workplace architecture for component-based application delivery and placed it at the centre of its managed applications vision. Cathleen Moore sat down with vice-president of Workplace products in the Lotus Software group, Ken Bisconti, to talk about the recent launch of IBM’s Workplace Client Technology rich client platform.
How will the Workplace Client Technology change how customers work and access information?
KB: When we first announced Lotus Workplace one of the key tenets was that we would provide a consistent user experience from mobile devices, to standard browser, to rich client experience. Last year we delivered firstly on the Web browser experience, but we knew we need to deliver a rich user experience going forward to really satisfy the needs of all the end-users. We decided we didn’t want to do in that in just a traditional fat client/thick client model, but instead wanted to use the latest in software componentisation and provisioning technologies that would allow us to marry the qualities of traditional browser applications — low cost of ownership, centralised management, and immediate deployment — with the traditional benefits of fat client environment: rich functionality, offline support, and better performance for the end-user. So our goal was to use a new technology that we later named the IBM Workplace Client Technology to enable the components such as Workplace Messaging and Workplace Documents for a rich user experience in addition to continuing to support our browser modes or even mobile device modes.
What is the biggest benefit for users?
KB: For an end-user the benefit is that they are able to have access to many applications in an integrated mode. They will be able to experience going forward some applications with greater flexibility, like taking Web and portal applications offline like they may do with their email or some traditional Notes applications today. And hopefully they’ll also see that their organisation is able to deliver more frequent updates and more modern software solutions to them. One of the biggest challenges and frustrations we often have as a vendor is that I have users that complain the Notes interface is old or it doesn’t have this feature or function, and it turns out they are using a product from 1999. The reason is that their organisation traditionally has a very difficult time deploying fat client software. The same is true for versions of Office and other thick client solutions. One of the key goals of Workplace Client is we are able to deliver software much easier and more immediately to vast end-user environments.
It sounds a lot like the thin client computing model pushed in the 1990s. Is it the same thing?
KB: It is the same and different. There are some business value benefits that are similar in terms of being able to have low cost of ownership and immediate deployment of applications. What is different is back then there was the vision of providing those business values but we lacked the technology to really execute. Back then, the thin client model was dependent on an always-connected environment and also had some limitations in terms of having a Java insulating layer. It was an interesting idea but it failed in execution because it didn’t pragmatically support the mixed environment that everyone lives in today, and customers and ISVs desire to be able to exploit the unique qualities of operating systems.
What’s different about the managed client model is that we are still supplying low cost of ownership with centralised management, but we are putting code on the desktop and on the devices, which allows you to work offline and have rich end-user functionality that you didn’t in some of those early thin client solutions. And secondly, we are taking a much more pragmatic approach. The industry has evolved forward with new foundations like Eclipse.
Eclipse is a very popular application and user framework for building development environments. What is very important about Eclipse is it is open an extensible and it supports flexibly not only Java application environments but still lets you support C++ and .Net applications and allows you to have a level of abstraction from the operating platform but still optionally reach down into the OS and use unique qualities like the GUI. For instance, the GUI we employ when our solution is used on top of Windows is the one from Microsoft. So when you run a Workplace application on top of XP it looks, feels and behaves like an XP application. When you run that same app on a future version of Longhorn, it will look feel behave like an Avalon app and their latest UI framework. That is very different from the old thin client world where everything had to be Java, everything had to be homogenous, and lowest common denominator function was the norm. We are very aware and conscious of existing investments in everything from Office document tools to documents and other applications and those all need to be supported. So the solutions you’ll see in Workplace embrace office documents and office editors but still give the customer additional functions such as being able to manage those documents in secure, backed-up, encrypted business environments. And also optionally give them access to new editors that are embedded, free, flexible standards-based and could complement their Office investment or gradually use instead of other editors if that is more attractive to them.
Some have described Workplace as a competitive move against Microsoft’s desktop dominance? Is that how IBM is positioning this?
KB: Steve Mills (during the Workplace launch) was very clear that the focus on Workplace is not about trying to compete with one vendor or another but trying to address customer requests we’ve been getting around how to develop the next generation of Web and portal applications and how do they manage a client environment that is more flexible and lower cost. Now, that said, there are some customers that recognise the choice this platform gives them in terms of their ability to use different tools, editors, different operating platforms. That hopefully gives them choice and flexibility but the focus of the technology is not to compete against one vendor or another.
What do the business partner relationships that IBM announced bring to the Workplace Client?
KB: The Workplace Client technology’s success is not just dependent on the use of the technology in IBM. But when you are providing an enabling technology that can be used all across the industry it is of course very important to develop an ecosystem around it. Even though we haven’t advertised Workplace Client technology as a broadly available software platform — it will be later this year — we’ve started working with a couple of dozen design partners who have invested for early mover advantage and are helping us use the technology in their solutions and helping us define the APIs that are appropriate and making it more a robust platform when it is more generally available to a broader scale of ISVs later this year. We are already employing all of IBM’s developer relations and PartnerWorld developer resources to also support ISVs and the IBM ecosystem around this technology. So it is very important — it is key, in fact.
What does the Client Technology introduction mean for customers’ existing Lotus Notes investments?
KB: One of the common comments we receive is this technology is very interesting, what does it mean to me as a Notes/Domino customer? Hopefully, what we’ve started to show our existing customers is that we have a plan to evolve both the Domino-based products and the Workplace products together with a goal of converging the technologies over the next few years. It is a multiyear journey. One example of convergence that we showed last week is how we are developing a Notes plug-in to the Workplace Client environment that will be able to surface existing Notes applications and Notes environments directly to a Workplace Client user. That (is) currently scheduled for the Notes 8 timeframe, we plan to use the Workplace Client technologies in the next generation of the Lotus Notes client, giving us the low cost of ownership, browser-like deployment, ubiquitous access qualities of the Workplace Client with the traditional rich function application support of Notes. A Notes customer doesn’t have to think about this at all, but they should know that it is in our planning horizon. In Notes 7 you can choose to start experimenting with this surfacing Notes applications inside the Workplace Client. By the time Notes 8 is released in 2006, we will use the Workplace Client technology under the covers of Notes very naturally and embedded.
They will be using a framework that is much broader than what they had in Notes. Notes has been very powerful for offline apps and rich client side applications, but traditionally has been limited by the idea that it is limited to groupware. Because Workplace Client is built on technologies like a relational data store, SyncML synchronisation, the Eclipse programming model and framework, they will now have an environment that has all the integration capabilities of a portal and all the application access of a Java J2EE environment with the traditional applications they are used to in Notes with the traditional offline, security, and rich function quality they are used to in Notes.
What are the next steps in the Workplace strategy?
KB: Next steps of Workplace strategy are to continue to build out the platform. By that we mean we believe a platform requires rich application development capabilities and toolsets. We’ve introduced the first tool, Workplace Builder, which is really a customisation and assembly tool inside Workplace 2.0. Later this year we plan to introduce a tool called Workplace Designer, which will be more attuned to a Visual Basic/Notes type of developer. We will also focus on mobile enablement of the application. The underlying framework of Workplace is very conducive to mobile enablement because all the technologies in the Workplace Client already get a level of automatic transcoding and mobile device support from our pervasive investments, but we will focus on making those productised in the next version of Workplace. We will continue to focus on scalability and reliability of the platform. Going forward, we will deliver new releases every six to eight months. In each release all existing components of the platform will get upgraded and often they will get new components. More support for the rich client environment will be added in other components of Workplace.