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IBM is to bundle server-side, Java-based office suite in with in its WebSphere portal, according to CRN. It's a shot against Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems too.

Big Blue is entering a crowded field. Sun offers its StarOffice package in both as a fat client and as a thin client for stateless terminals, such as Sun's own SunRays. Microsoft and Citrix enable sites to run Office on thin clients too. And there are dedicated productivity suites such as the Java-based ThinkOffice.

In an exquisite understatement, CRN reporters Barbara Darrow and Paula Rooney observe that "IBM has not distinguished itself in desktop software."

Indeed, and it's quite a colorful history, too.

The original word processor for the IBM PC, EasyWriter, was written in prison by one John Draper. Draper is better known as the legendary phone phreak Captain Crunch, nowadays a security consultant, and his 'black box' pranks provided the inspiration for Steves Wozniak and Jobs, and other members of the Home Brew Computer Club. (EasyWriter had debuted on the Apple II, and owed its name to the Hopper/Fonda road movie).

During the 1980s, when IBM insisted on regarding PCs as "programmable terminals", its desktop software amounted to little more than an idiosyncratic word processor with a mainframe heritage, DisplayWriter.

Having realized that the productivity boat was leaving the harbor without it, it had a rethink. At the end of the decade, it began to tout a glorious future of productivity software it called OfficeVision. This was an entirely object orientated desktop relying on what later became OpenDoc, and OS/2. OfficeVision became a death march, but having promised its customers something, it bought Lotus to fulfill the groupware part of the deal.

That deal also gave it a first rate office suite, too. All it had to do, was compete with Microsoft.

During the Antitrust trials, IBM testified that Redmond's OEM enforcer (and big-game hunter) Joachin Kempin offered IBM lower Windows royalties if it delayed shipping a version of SmartSuite.

Gates had mailed Kempin asking if SmartSuite "should become an issue in our global relationship with IBM." Kempin replied: "I am willing to do whatever it takes to kick them out."

From CRN we learn that the suite will be built using standard Java side J2EE components, so its ancestry owes more to Lotus' aborted eSuite WorkPlace Java productivity apps than SmartSuite. eSuite was abandoned in October 1999.

(We have omitted a few details to simplify the narrative, such as the object-ish IBM Works suite, that was bundled with OS/2 Warp).

Java productivity apps have enjoyed a mixed history of success. Applix ran the longest with its Anywhere suite, and Corel's Office collapsed under the weight of its own hubris.

But IBM's portal pitch is interesting, and a little different. It comes at no extra cost to the Websphere portal customers. And hidden as it is, in a cupboard beneath the stairs, it's unlikely to raise Redmond's attentions.

However the same issue that faced all Microsoft's rivals applies to this new gambit too. For customers to use it, the software actually has to be good. And for organizations to switch, it has to be very good indeed. ®

Related Links

Crunch - Box
CRN's scoop

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MS OEM VP to IBM: dump Lotus and we'll cut a deal
Cut a deal or you don't get Win95 - IBM faces PC suicide
The day Bill Gates screamed IBM's house down
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