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The new IBM Workplace is touted as a remedy for a wide range of ills, all the way from viruses to Microsoft Office licensing fees. How are members of the channel responding to IBM’s recently launched “application management model?”

At this point, the answer hinges largely on whether the partner hails from the IBM/Lotus or Microsoft side of the industry wall.

Right now, IBM partners are still evaluating Workplace 1.1 beta code, pointed out Henry Bestritsky, principal at Binary Tree Inc., one of Big Blue’s allies. Bestritsky anticipates general availability of “the real product,” Workplace 2.0, by the end of June.

IBM’s beta testers claim that, in demoing Workplace 1.1 to customers, they’re getting positive feedback about benefits ranging from Web security and remote management to lowered total cost of ownership (TCO).

Meanwhile, for the most part, Microsoft shops haven’t gotten a chance yet to see IBM’s new Workplace.

From the sounds of it, though, Workplace seems to share some capabilities with Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server, said Kirk Daues, network engineer at FrontPages Web Hosting Network, a Microsoft ASP partner serving midsized to large companies.

“We are 100 percent Microsoft, and we don’t have any plans to switch over—not any time soon, at least,” Daues said.

“SharePoint is awesome for document management,” he said, pointing in particular to its Web browser view, the ability to search Office documents online and Microsoft’s WebParts.

“WebParts are almost like small applications. There’s a WebPart for Outlook, for example, that lets customers view Outlook mail without having Outlook installed on their desktops,” the engineer added.

For their part, though, IBM and some of its partners tend to view Workplace as more than either a portal architecture or a document management environment.

Workplace combines new components with several existing IBM/Lotus products, said Christian Hunt, a software engineer in IBM’s Pervasive Computing group.

The existing pieces include IBM WebSphere Portal, Lotus Workplace and IBM Everywhere, for managing mobile/pervasive environments.

At the moment, Workplace’s Eclipse-based plug-in architecture centers mainly around two client-side software components, available for 18 different operating environments, including Windows, Linux and mobile OS, said Alistair Rennie, IBM’s director of on-demand management and strategy.

The client software operates in conjunction with componentry on WebSphere servers.

The new Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition, is for mobile and embedded environments. In contrast, IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging and IBM Lotus Workplace Documents are both designed to deliver “rich client experiences for the desktop,” Rennie said.

Workplace, however, also allows for browser views, “and just about anything in between,” Bestrisky said.

Microsoft Office documents can be run inside the new IBM Lotus Workplace Documents.

According to Ron Sebastian, senior architect in IBM’s Lotus Development, Microsoft Office documents can be run inside the new IBM Lotus Workplace Documents, allowing users to work with Office documents without any need for installing Office applications on the desktop.

Bestrisky said he finds Workplace’s workaround to Office licensing to be a big draw among customers. “I think Microsoft Office is a great product,” Bestrisky maintained. “In reality, though, most people only use about 10 to 20 percent of its features.

A lot of customers are growing disgruntled, because Microsoft keeps coming out with new versions without adding much real functionality,” he said.

“The response among customers [to Workplace] has been phenomenal. It’s all about TCO. Why should you have to pay hundreds of dollars per desktop for Office, and then have to update every desktop each time Microsoft comes out with a new version?

“Furthermore, not only can you view [an Office] document in Workplace, but you can also put it through the [Notes] workflow process.”

Microsoft also has some lower-priced competitors, including OpenOffice, Bestrisky acknowledged.

“Microsoft Office, though, does offer more functionality. Also, IBM has huge marketing muscle behind it for Workplace.”

Security is another lure, Bestrisky said. “A lot of customers are saying, ‘I don’t want viruses!’ Somebody at an SMB [small to midsized business] will download a game and—boom! —everything gets messed up with a virus. But Workplace has a central document store that protects against viruses.”

Binary Tree produces Windows migration tools but also operates a multifaceted services arm. Customers run the gamut from SMBs to giant enterprises such as DaimlerChrysler AG and Exxon.

“Our customers are most interested in Workplace’s server-managed client architecture,” Jinks said. A future edition of the vendor’s software, to be dubbed Colligo Enterprise, will be integrated with Workplace, for client-server synchronization even when users are offline.

“This will let central IT deploy centralized security policies to the remote clients. IT will also be able to upload all of the transactions that occur offline,” Jinks said.

Unlike files copied on to floppies or Zip drives, he contended, uploads such as these will produce auditable data that companies can use to prove compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example.

But few observers predict that Workplace will take the software industry by storm overnight.

“Some of our larger customers, and some of our joint customers with IBM, are now taking a very serious look at Workplace. But it’s still quite early yet, and we don’t expect that customers will [start buying] Workplace in the very near future,” Jinks said.

Tamey K. Tamahashi, an analyst at The Radicati Group Inc., argued that Workplace will at first be used mainly for deploying software to non-Windows platforms such as Linux desktops.

“Although software as a service has become a hot topic recently, we are still years off from seeing desktop productivity applications delivered as a service.

There are benefits to on-demand, but currently there is too much confusion and complexity for these services to take the place of traditional desktop apps,” Tamahashi said.