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IBM prepares to blow open Microsoft's monopoly

Thin clients re-awake and start plotting overthrow of PC status quo.

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IBM has announced a new software strategy, with accompanying products, designed to circumvent Microsoft's lock on operating systems and productivity applications.

Updates to IBM's client, administration and portal software will allow everything from desktop PCs to smartphones to access the same data - including Microsoft Office data - using standards-based middleware instead of a Microsoft client.

The strategy is similar to the "thin client" approach earlier championed by Oracle, Sun and others, which advocated the use of easily-manageable terminals as an alternative to bulky, powerful, complex Windows PCs.

Unlike that idea, IBM's Lotus Workplace-centred strategy is designed to work alongside "rich clients" such as Windows and Microsoft Office, while extending access to the thin clients already in wide use - namely, handheld computers, smartphones and even older Windows machines. "IBM is combining the low total cost of ownership and immediate deployment qualities of web applications with the rich functionality of traditional PC software," IBM said in a statement.

IBM has updated its Lotus Workplace client software, Tivoli administration software and WebSphere portal software to introduce the new middleware strategy. The new Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition version 5.7 (WCTME 5.7) middleware can be built into mobile devices such as PDAs, adding device versions of enterprise software such as DB2e, MQe, Service Management Framework and Java runtime environments, and allowing central management of these devices. The software works with clients with constant network connections as well as those which only synchronise periodically, IBM said.

A new version of the Workplace Messaging client will now feature an rich-client experience, IBM said, even when accessed through a browser. An update of Workplace Documents allows users to collaborate on documents including presentations and spreadsheets. IBM partners including Adobe, PeopleSoft and Siebel are working on integrating IBM's middleware with their products, and device makers PalmOne and Research In Motion said they are also working with the technology.

PalmOne stressed the compatibility of Workplace Client with J2ME, a version of Java designed for mobile devices. "With the growth of wireless computing, embedded Java will be increasingly important in allowing disparate devices to access different networks and types of data," said Jonathan Oakes, senior director of strategy for PalmOne, in a statement.

IBM said the software will be available first for Windows, Linux, Unix and mobile platforms such as the Symbian OS, with a Mac OS X version to follow later this year.

Microsoft's rivals in the enterprise computing industry have long looked to thin clients such as the Web browser as a way to loosen the grip of the Windows/Office monopoly. Now, with the proliferation of mobile devices, most based on non-Microsoft software, the thin-client approach may come into its own, industry analysts said.

"People are going to start accessing applications with more devices, that's the bet IBM is making," said James Governor, principal analyst with RedMonk. "The PC is not the most interesting device any more. That's why you need software to be componentised, so that you can mix and mach what components you need for each device. Microsoft always gives you the whole honking thing."

One Microsoft attempt to bring mobility into its strategy is .Net, designed to supplant Java - but .Net is designed to be tied to such Microsoft platforms as the Windows desktop and Windows CE. It has been left to independent efforts such as Mono, backed by Novell, to make .Net applications run on Linux and other platforms.

Governor noted that Microsoft's traditional strategy of pushing hardware into commodified uniformity while profiting from software has met with resistance. The players in the mobile space - companies such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and PalmOne - are reluctant to see their business models disappear, Governor said.

Dominant Linux player Red Hat is making a similar play to eat away at Microsoft's desktop monopoly with its own desktop software, introduced last week. Like IBM, Red Hat is relying on the Internet and its open standards, offering Red Hat Desktop as a subscription package over the Internet through major players such as IBM, HP and Dell, for $5 a month and up, the company said. "Our customers are asking for thin client capability," said Red Hat president and CEO Matthew Szulik at the launch.

"The context of the PC industry is changing now," said RedMonk's Governor. "IBM and the Linux community are trying to reset the agenda of what the PC means. They're saying that there needs to be interoperability and componentisation."



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