IBM, Microsoft Chart Collaboration's Course

At the hub of it all sit the industry's big guns, IBM and Microsoft. Both have been pushing collaboration aggressively this past year, launching new wares and services and, in particular, selling partners on the chance to create an unlimited number of solutions using their tools. From a technology perspective, the rivals' approaches vary (IBM hews to its server-side middleware foundation and a browser; Microsoft anchors collaboration at the desktop), but what both companies are doing has helped propel the market far beyond e-mail to a state of real-time collaboration and workflow that marries both front- and back-end data.

David Marshak, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group, calls the next two years a period of disruption as it pertains to collaboration. Customers, he says, will be making decisions about messaging and portal solutions and platforms, and IBM and Microsoft—and their partners—should look to cash in.

"I don't know yet whose technology [IBM's or Microsoft's] is more disruptive, but customers are going to be forced to do something—at least an upgrade; at most migrating all of their users, mailboxes and logic," Marshak says.

IBM's Collaboration Wager

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For its part, IBM is placing bets on the Java-based Workplace offerings, a series of messaging, Web forms and team-collaboration components built atop the WebSphere Portal, itself now under the auspices of the Lotus business group.

The portal foundation to collaboration solutions is key. In essence, WebSphere Portal has become the embedded development platform for Workplace applications, with third-party portlet tools, such as those from IBM partner Bowstreet, playing a crucial role in simplifying the development work itself. Part of the allure of Domino, Lotus' flagship messaging software, has been its rapid application-development tools, enabling partners without heavy-duty code-writing skills, like those necessary for J2EE, to whip up apps quickly.

"IBM needs to target the non-J2EE developer, who can take preconfigured Workplace components and snap them together to create a portlet or application functionality," says Steve Ricketts, vice president of marketing at Bowstreet. "That's the role that the integrator or VAR can play."

As a proof point to Workplace's momentum as a platform, IBM recently announced that 100 ISVs have enabled their applications to run on Workplace. And in November, Big Blue added more products to the Workplace mix, including IBM Workplace Services Express 2.0, a collection of collaboration services targeted at small to midsize customers. Other software includes IBM Lotus Web Conferencing Service, a software-as-a-service offering provided at this point only by IBM. Last, the company has released a set of 17 frameworks for Workplace that helps partners tailor Workplace solutions for particular industries, such as retail or banking.

If it sounds like a lot of tools, it is. And that has been confusing for some partners. The fact is that the Workplace rollout has been somewhat rocky, mainly because IBM has had a difficult time conveying how the new products fit into the legacy Notes/Domino franchise and whether the thousands of existing Domino applications are rendered obsolete.

Yet, the messaging fog has lifted a bit of late. The takeaway? Notes/Domino is not going away for now (versions 7.0 and 8.0 releases are forthcoming during the next couple of years), however the venerable platform will adopt elements of Workplace functionality over time, such as Eclipse-based text editors and app-dev capabilities. Meanwhile, today's Domino apps can be accessed via Workplace without having to port them all over to Java.

However, you will see multiple IBM technologies, from WebSphere Portal to Notes/Domino to WebSphere Everyplace, coalescing into a single Workplace family, according to Ken Bisconti, vice president of Workplace, portal and collaboration products at IBM.

"Three to four years from now, there will be a complete integration of these things, all brought forward into a modern technology base," Bisconti says.

Microsoft Weighs In

That's the kind of integration Microsoft currently lays claim to having. Office System is a vast collection of client applications, servers and services all built on a similar code base. The compendium of software reaches well beyond the traditional Word/Excel/PowerPoint suite with new apps like Infopath and OneNote (a note-taking program that Microsoft has been giving away free to seed the market), to servers like SharePoint Portal Server and Live Communications Server, which form a bridge with the desktop.

Allison Watson, vice president of worldwide partner sales at Microsoft, says interest in the new partner program's Information Worker competency, which encompasses Office System, has been high, reflecting the opportunity in collaboration. So far, 11 percent of Microsoft's certified partners have signed up for the Information Worker competency, with 8 percent of registered member partners expressing interest in the same discipline.

Ironically, Watson says the newer capabilities included in Office System now enable Microsoft partners to provide the kinds of collaboration solutions that were previously the lone domain of Lotus. And though some of Microsoft's partners also provide Workplace solutions, the pendulum among them is swinging toward more Office-based collaboration deployments, she says.

"The general belief is that Workplace will be interesting to existing IBM customers, but the bulk of growth the partners I talk to see is usually 80 [percent]/20 [percent] Microsoft to IBM," Watson says. "They see existing IBM environments putting in Infopath, Windows SharePoint Services and Content Management Server behind it to do portal solutions. We are seeing heterogeneity."

Avanade is one of Microsoft's strategic partners doing collaborative solutions in the enterprise. Ricardo Arroyo, senior program director for the Seattle-based integrator, says his firm has exploited a wide range of the Microsoft tools arsenal to craft solutions. The SharePoint products (Windows SharePoint Service, which creates team workspaces for sharing documents, and SharePoint Portal Server) have served as the foundation for an array of customer deployments, he says. Infopath, the front-end forms-generation application, is another major play.

"A big driver for us in the services space is the ability to route and perform business processes using Infopath," Arroyo says. "To us, Outlook is to Exchange as Infopath is to BizTalk. It's a great front end for a business-process orchestrator. And SharePoint is the place to host it all."

As companies grow more and more distributed and the need for information at your fingertips increases, solution providers will be increasingly called on to create these kinds of collaboration solutions. Portals are a linchpin, as are development capabilities. Microsoft and IBM will keep pushing the envelope, along with vendor giants including SAP. The opportunity for VARs is there for the picking.