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IBM Buffs Workplace and WebSphere Portal

IBM this week announced new and updated products in its Workplace family of collaboration products, including 19 role-based integrated applications for medium and small business customers. The company also said it will provide ad hoc Web conferencing as a service for customers beginning in December.

The solutions provide customizable business functions for specific industries or categories of business tasks and operations – all built using IBM Workplace products and selected third-party applications.

Though perhaps a cliché by now, IBM officials also continued to emphasize the differences between a “network-delivered” collaboration environment and one based primarily on personal computers – notably Microsoft’s view. “[With Workplace Solutions] you do not have to have Microsoft Office,” says Larry Bowden, vice president, of IBM Workplace Software Solutions.

IBM designed the solutions by studying the job roles required for performing typical sets of tasks or operations within a set of vertical markets. At the same time, it considered how to implement horizontal business roles within typical companies’ IT environments, including procurement, finance and administration, customer service, and human resources. The new Workplace Solutions provide integrated application sets that meet at that nexus; for instance, systems to provide branch banking or retail store management functions.

“They’ve taken lessons out of IBM’s services group and . . . they have designed these packages to make those people with the key business roles more effective,” says Robert Mahowald, research manager at IDC. That should, the reasoning goes, make those businesses that adopt those solutions more successful.

Because the solutions and IBM Workplace products support industry standards, including Java and XML, other products can be integrated with other systems as well. IBM Workplace includes Lotus Workplace, WebSphere Portal, Lotus Notes and Domino, and WebSphere Everyplace, according to the company’s Web site.

“Our focus is on organizational productivity,” says Bowden, adding, “Having a competitive edge is not as good as having a sustainable competitive edge.”

In fact, implementing entire integrated systems based on the functions that a business needs to perform as well as the roles of the people who perform the necessary tasks, and providing that to customers in a solution package that is the next best thing – or so IBM officials hope – to a turnkey solution, provides that sustainable edge, company executives submit.

The solutions don’t do everything. Implementation details remain but IBM’s intent is to take part of the pain out of the process for small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have a division dedicated to providing IT. “Why don’t we get you 70 percent of the way?” asks Bowden rhetorically.

In one of IBM’s demonstration scenarios, a bank branch teller receives a large check and needs to obtain the approval of a customer service person, and also needs to clear the deposit for regulatory compliance and auditing. The branch banking solution provides job roles for three different employee task sets to fulfill the required business functions. Indeed, the new Workplace Solutions encompass more than 30 job functions or employee roles, company spokespeople said.

Among the areas where IBM is offering new Workplace Solutions are: retail, electronics, manufacturing, finance, telecommunications, government, life sciences, healthcare and automotive businesses. Additionally, the company has updated its Branch Banking solution as well as its Business Controls and Reporting solution (now at version 2.5).

Fundamentally, however, IBM is taking a slightly different tack on coopetition. To companies like Oracle, SAP and PeopleSoft, “They’re saying, ‘we’re going to provide the plumbing for you,’” says IDC’s Mahowald, leaving part of the pie for other players.

IBM will also begin offering on demand Web conferencing next month, officials said. “If you have a browser and a telephone, you can set up a Web conference,” Bowden says. “Instead of buying the software from us, you can just buy the service.” This comes as a direct attempt to take business away from Microsoft’s Live Meeting, says Mahowald.

In addition, IBM also announced a new product in the Workplace family. IBM Workplace Services Express v2.0 is a brand new product designed for small and mid-sized organizations and departments in large enterprises. It includes team collaboration, document management, web forms, task lists, and portal services as well user customization features. IBM Workplace Services Express also integrates with the user's existing applications and data, as well as e-mail, calendar and address book, and provides a range of collaboration tools including integrated instant messaging. It will ship in December, officials said.

Finally, IBM debuted the latest release of WebSphere Portal – version 5.1 – which adds virtual portals, business process workflow features, and improved content management capabilities. Version 5.1 will be available by the end of November.

The company will announce pricing for all the products and services when the products are available, company officials said.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.