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Ambuj Goyal on Workplace, .NET opportunity for IBM (Parts 1 and 2)

What's on the mind of the man who steers the course for IBM Lotus Workplace? Find out in this exclusive interview.

IBM's Workplace collaborative platform is a huge undertaking. Yet it is something of a Trojan horse, in that it is only a slightly disguised effort to re-engage Microsoft in a battle for the desktop work environment.

Gartner analysts have written: "Any market strategy powerful enough to displace Microsoft would have to rest on significant innovation, and IBM's vision for Workplace holds this potential." And it is true. It's also true is that execution will be key to Workplace advances, and much of the burden to execute on the Workplace plan lies on the shoulders of Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBM's Lotus Software division.

When sat down recently to talk to Goyal, collaboration, naturally, was the focus of the conversation. The subjects of development tools, as well as the opportunity to lure Microsoft Visual Basic users into the Lotus camp, also appeared on the agenda.

IBM sees .NET as opportunity
Java started life as a sophisticated language that IBM and others are now trying to simplify for a broader class of developers. Meanwhile, Microsoft, known for easy-to-use tools like Visual Basic, has gone in the other direction. Of late, .NET is no simpler than Java and J2EE, and it is actually harder than VB, once Microsoft's mainstay.

Among other efforts he oversees, Goyal is working to bring easier to use Java development tools to the world, starting with Workplace Designer, a tool that employs traditional Lotus development paradigms to jumpstart the Java-centered Workplace platform effort. We asked Goyal if he thought the VB faithful could be moved into the Workplace, with Workplace Designer as the lure?

Ambuj Goyal

Goyal replied that VB users are "being forced to choose either the Microsoft route or the IBM route for building applications." He said that the changes in VB represented "a huge opportunity for us," and that IBM tools currently in beta will leverage VB skills.

"There are few customers or team programmers that can deal with C# and J2EE design," he said. "We have learned over the last 15 years that we can reach many more users and many more developers by giving them a simple capability to do design work," he said.

One of those simple capabilities is WebSphere Portal, which gives Java developers a point-and-click interface for creating Web-based applications (or, as IBM refers to them, portals) using combinations of Java servlets. Says Goyal, "The drag-and-drop model that we introduced with WebSphere Portal Designer makes it simple for the business user to design a Web page on the backend" – as simple as in Notes or Domino – or maybe even simpler.

WebSphere Portal employs the composition model of development. That means that writing a portal-based application consists of composing many services. So you could have a portal developer writing a composed application that could integrate a back-end application, such as an SAP or Siebel application, as well as a Domino application.

If a developer thinking about building a forms-based application was working with Domino Designer, they could integrate only assets that were developed on Domino. But, says Goyal, if they were using the IBM Workplace Designer, an extension of Portal Designer, they'd be able to write that application not just on Domino but inside the portal itself, and would be able to integrate non-Domino elements, such as J2EE and Cobol assets, into the application.

Asked which skills developers need to create applications in Workplace Designer, Goyal said, "In general, we recommend that they understand the concepts of the composition model and Web services." That's a prerequisite, since every design element in Domino 7 (and Workplace Designer) will be exposed as a Web service.

Collaboration happens
Goyal said that collaboration is just now emerging as a key piece of business value for an enterprise, and, in time, will of necessity evolve to include collaboration with the customer. "Collaboration is about more than teamwork," he said. "In the end, collaboration is about productivity -- bringing the entire resources of the enterprise to bear on solving a specific problem." In his view, that means integration with documents, processes, services and just-in-time learning across the enterprise.

Although he wouldn't divulge the products that are coming down the road, Goyal said that IBM's approach to new products in the collaboration arena is based on the principle of working code. "Whenever we are presenting to our customers, we always have code working in the lab," he said. "We bring the code to the customer engagement. We don't say we will ship it and then not ship it. When you compete in this market, you have to bring your code," he continued.

"For us to start talking to the customer, we have to have an actual piece of work, either in alpha or beta," said Goyal.

The recent Microsoft acquisition of Groove Networks Inc. may loom as a defining moment for the infant field of collaboration. It does pit Microsoft's offerings more directly against Workplace, but Goyal is far from nonplussed. "Groove is basically about document sharing across two enterprises. We already had that technology with QuickPlace," he said.

He further noted that there are better technologies for the secure exchange of documents than peer-to-peer and explained IBM's position in this area. In fact, when it came time to discuss the internal technology of Groove, Goyal did not mince words.

"Peer-to-peer is not a business value proposition. The peer-to-peer proposition says I can exchange documents between two companies without going through the server. But the company has no clue as to what type of information is being exchanged. The real issue is whether two companies can share documents securely, not whether the technology is router-based or router-plus-server-based." Read the story devoted to these comments IBM doesn't like peer-to-peer.

Goyal has an eye on some possible wrinkles in Microsoft's unfolding roadmap. He questioned Microsoft's strategy for collaboration software, as others have, pointing to the difficulties that may ensue as Microsoft works to bring Groove products into its portfolio. "Looking down the road, it's not clear to me whether their Office system is the client or whether Groove is the client," he said. "Will it be Groove IM or Microsoft IM? Will Groove be the security model of the future or will it be the Microsoft security model?" he asked. "This will take a few years for the marketplace to figure out." readers have been vocal at times about perceived marketing mis-steps on IBM's part. Certainly, IBM (as did Lotus Development Corp. before it) has taken a few licks in the fray with the "upstart" Microsoft. For his part, Goyal is unbowed. He suggests that, in the final analysis, products and sales will best marketing.

"Microsoft may out-market us, but we outsell them. When we battle head-to-head, our code wins. I would rather outsell them than out-market them any day."

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