IBM’s brave new workplace
What exactly is a workplace? In the past 30 odd years, our very definition of this has changed dramatically. It is, of course, a place where work is done, no doubt. But beyond that, all bets are off.
Earlier this week IBM announced the IBM Workplace, a true Collaborative Business Environment that is centrally managed and server centric. All functionality stems from the server, managed by a new middleware software model that conflates the best qualities of browser-based computing and the more traditional desktop environment, essentially superseding the existing model in place in corporations large and small: the networked PC. The result is a single environment in which knowledge workers can access information and collaborate with colleagues, business partners and customers.
The tools are delivered using the IBM Workplace Client Technology, an infrastructure delivering functionality to whatever device a user happens to be using - a laptop, PDA, smartphone, desktop PC or tablet. A user can employ different devices during the course of the day - depending on whether he is in a home office, at a customer site, en route somewhere in a car (with embedded systems, of course), or at his desk in the office. This significantly changes the dynamic - especially given support for disconnected modes which replicate data upon reconnection - for workers used to a significantly lower level of support when not deskbound.
The benefits are manifold: enterprise customers no longer having to manage separate and distinct toolsets for different environments, users finding it much easier to work at a location where work NEEDS to take place such as a spare desk at a customer site, a hotel room with only dial-up connectivity, or seat 2J on an aircraft with no connectivity.
IBM has updated IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging to provide a rich-client experience (similar to that usually found in traditional desktop applications). Workplace Messaging includes
- embedded presence/awareness and instant messaging,
- calendaring and scheduling,
- file viewers,
- disconnected functionality, and
- LDAP support
Since a mobile user has different requirements than an office-bound user, and a sometimes-mobile user straddles both worlds, the new Workplace Client Technology, Micro Edition (WCTME), by necessity extends enterprise-level functionality to a variety of mobile devices. It is middleware comprised of device specific versions of IBM enterprise software, such as DB2e, MQe, Service Management Framework and Java runtime environments. The WCTME platform allows users to access applications without connectivity present; the software will synchronize the data the next time connectivity is established.
In addition, IBM Workplace Documents provides companies with an integrated document management approach that leverages the IBM Workplace framework. Workplace Documents includes:
- document check-in/check-out,
- version control,
- integration with desktop applications such as Microsoft Office Suite (e.g. Word, Excel) with file replication and synchronization to the server,
- local and server storage, and
- support for DB2 Content Manager
Both applications include a set of productivity components based on the OpenOffice.org open source code. Tools include editors for text, spreadsheets and graphics. Unlike Microsoft Office, which is installed on the workstation, these tools are deployed from the server (although once they are installed, they can be used in disconnected mode).
IBM sees this product as fulfilling a need in the enterprise market, as well as in the upper end of the middle-market space. Already, companies such as Adobe, Colligo, Intellisync, PeopleSoft, Research in Motion (RIM), and Siebel have announced plans to support IBM Workplace. But of equal import may be the somewhat underserved SMB (Small and Medium Business) market, which would benefit from the opportunity to consume Workplace services in a utility (read: On Demand) format. Today, much of the SMB market uses Microsoft Office applications and, if they are lucky, saves files to a centralized file server for storage and document sharing.
A variant on the present model (i.e. anything beyond the typewriter) has been part of the officescape for a quarter century. Certainly, in that timeframe, the needs of the workplace have changed: electronic proximity is replacing working face-to-face; an online culture has evolved (especially in the past seven or eight years); and the very concept of a "workplace" as a traditional office has changed dramatically. When I attended my first conference on telecommuting in 1983, neither the tools nor the infrastructure existed to make the idea practical (let alone appealing). Today, knowledge workers can engage their workplace virtually anywhere - the beach, a taxi, a hotel room, a park or café with hotspots - so it may very well be the time, and place, for a "new" new workplace to take hold.