IBM: Set Your Workplace Free

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A little less than 11 months ago today, I was sitting down in Josh’s ‘hood in an overflow room listening to Ed Brill and his co-presenter, Libby Ingrassia (AKA notesgirl), give a talk on how to sell Notes within your organization. While they did an excellent job on the presentation, the most interesting take away from the session was the first question asked in the Q&A. Here’s what I said then:

The first person to take the mic in Q&A…asked why Notes does not have a good tutorial available? Training, he went on, was the biggest single factor in TCO – with offices all over AsiaPac, brown bag lunch training sessions aren’t exactly an option.

I find this interesting not because of the issue itself – training is a concern with many enterprise applications – but because of the context. Notes, he said, needed training, particularly for Outlook users. But Outlook didn’t suffer from the same issue – as I captured it, he said “[his users] all know how to use Outlook they tell me because they use it at home.”

The fact that Notes requires more training than Outlook will not shock advocates of either platform; forget the technical disparities – it’s a question of ubiquity. That’s not a knock on Notes, please note: there are millions of seats of the platform worldwide, and as Ed Brill is only too happy to report they’re showing few signs of slowing down. But the Outlook/Office combination is a different beast altogether – it’s everywhere. Where it’s not paid for, it’s pirated. This is not, I would argue, due primarily or even in large part to superior technology. Outlook is a fine product of course (yes, it’s superior to Evolution), but I speak to few people who are in love with it – it simply is what they are used to and given to work with.

This Outlook-as-de-facto-standard is, in fact, a gating or limiting factor to deployment of alternate platforms. In this (PDF warning) OSDL survey of desktop linux drivers and inhibitors, email/messaging was rated as the top barrier to entry. The survey included this editorial on that topic:

Note that email was considered more critical than either a browser or office productivity tools. A number of possible conclusions relating to email can be drawn from these results: email truly is the killer app, regardless of platform; that without a quality email application Linux on the desktop is not feasible; that application vendors should focus on developing a quality email application for the Linux desktop.

Now that statement may ring as slightly untrue to those who’ve been on desktop Linux like me, because there are in fact credible email applications available such as Evolution (my client of choice) and Thunderbird. But the fact remains that what Firefox is to IE, neither of those clients are to Outlook.

So what do we have thus far? First, that Notes suffers at times due to a lack of ubiquity, and second that Linux at least is crying out for a next generation email client. Interesting, but while I understand there are ways of getting Notes to run on Linux, it’s not exactly a trivial process. That should change soon – first half of ’06, Ken Bisconti says here – but as it happens, IBM’s already commited to investing $100M to make one of its other platforms ready for the Linux platform. That platform, of course, is Workplace.

Based on the Eclipse RCP, Workplace is a fascinating piece of technology, representing more or less a vision of “middleware for the desktop.” By marrying RCP with Cloudscape and a host of other IBM technologies, Workplace is capable of delivering a rich client experience with thin client manageability. Maybe that prospect isn’t too sexy to your average end user, but trust me – it resonates quite well with IT staffs.

There’s one obvious problem with the Workplace strategy, however, and that is barriers to entry. Unlike Outlook, which is perfectly suitable as a front end to non-Exchange POP and IMAP messaging systems, the Workplace client is – to the best of my knowledge – tightly coupled to the Workplace server components. As a result, the Workplace client is only of interest to enterprises willing to adopt and/or migrate to the Workplace back end. While I’m sure that market will be sizable and profitable for IBM, it will far well short of the sort of ubiquity that would compete with Outlook. And if IBM is truly looking to encourage ISV adoption and community development around the platform, shouldn’t ubiquity be the goal? Of course. The question is how to get there.

So let’s ask the question: what if the client was decoupled from the server, and delivered as a free, standalone component? That’s precisely the suggestion I made to Mike Rhodin and Craig Hayman a couple of weeks back:

Incidentally, one suggestion that I did make to Mike & Craig, partially in response to studies like this one, was to consider decoupling the Workplace client piece from the server, and offering an open source Eclipse RCP based Workplace open source client.

Ideally such a move would also include open sourcing at least portions of the technology – it’s fascinating to think what the community might be able to embed in the platform – Asterisk, maybe? But if that’s too challenging, it’s more important that it be free and cross-platform.

From where I sit, it seems like everyone’s a winner here: Eclipse gains an important new, cross-platform technology to demonstrate the utility of the RCP foundation, IBM has a legimitate shot at ubiquity and could attempt to outflank Microsoft on the cross-platform and server independence routes, while users would gain a powerful new messaging (and more) client that could follow them to the operating system of their choice. IBM understands better than many the advantages of free and open source from a distribution perspective; all it needs to do is to apply those lessons to a technology in Workplace that could really benefit from them. Am I crazy, or does this make sense to anyone else?


  1. the plan is for Notes to run on Linux within the Workplace RCP. So it’s a best-of-both scenario — a mature rich client combined with the flexibility and extensibility of the Workplace managed client. That work has already been demonstrated publicly and will be part of the 2006 deliverables.

  2. Stephen-

    Such interesting questions and analysis of the mail-scape.

    I for one am really disappointed by Evolution’s lack of rapid progress, and would really be excited by such a play for a Notes client.

    (Your aside about Asterisk is stimulating, too. Would absolutely adore a plug&play asterisk install, as am adding Cisco 79xy’s to the workspace.)

  3. There’s another take on this. With the rise in social software, I’m having more conversations over VoIPI/IM than ever before. If not there then on blog posts. email usage is tumbling and is more or less limited to administrative issues – like monitoring comments on blogs or sending out the occasional invoice for work done. Much else -like shared information – is now taking place in dedicated online virtual communities that exist for the duration of the project and then are torn down or archived away.

    Is there not therefore a case for saying that Notes needs to transmute into the kind of community tool it once appeared to be but which since has been outglammed by the social software movement?

  4. Stephen,
    can you comment on Ed Brill’s reply? His answer is to technical for me. Is that what you asked for?

  5. Stephen, what’s your take on the prospects of APAX-architected clients like Zimbra? Seems to me that what you and others are *really* asking for is what they are just now revving up to deliver…Zimbra client to Workplace server anyone?

  6. Ed: tried to note that with the “that should change soon – first half of ’06” comment, but it’s a point worth emphasizing. be interesting to see what the takeup will be.

    Sam: should be interesting indeed. i think the PIM metaphor can be pushed much further than we’ve seen to date, and open source could help. the trick will be managing the balance between conservative (Evolution) and too aggressive (Chandler).

    Dennis: totally agree. one of my main issues with the current crop of PIMs is that they are outdated in how i interact with my contacts – and that is absolutely, in my view, an opportunity for innovation.

    Kjell: partially. i think Notes running on Linux via Workplace is another good option for cross-platform messaging solutions. but what i really want is something entirely server agnostic that is not tied to the Notes UI, which can be non-intuitive at times. Workplace could be that, IMO.

    Drew: i think AJAX based clients – and Zimbra in particular – are a very welcome development, and i’ve been quite high on them in the past. the trouble that AJAX clients have, of course, is offline access. that’s where rich clients come in – at least until we have some form of browser persistence available.

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